KICKOFF: Saturday, 7 ET
SITE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
SERIES: Pitt leads 8-2 (last meeting, 2010, Pitt 28-10)
RECORDS: Cincinnati 6-1, 2-0 Big East; Pitt 4-4, 2-1 Big East
POLLS: Cincinnati (No. 23 AP, No. 22 USA Today)
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 24-21
KEYS TO THE GAME:
-- For Cincinnati: Win the line of scrimmage. This game likely will be decided by how well the Bearcats control the Panthers' formidable defensive front. The Bearcats want to avoid a slow start coming off the bye week.
-- For Pittsburgh: Avoid negative plays and don't give up big plays on defense. Cincinnati will pass the ball and do it often with QB Zach Collaros, but the big weapon is Isaiah Pead in the running game. The Panthers must protect the QB Tino Sunseri.
SCOUTING THE TEAMS:
Cincinnati's offense is anything but one-dimensional. It has shown uncanny balance with 200 yards rushing and just under 234 yards passing per game. The Bearcats have the ability to pound the ball with Isaiah Pead, who has 703 yards and eight TDs, but when the opportunities have presented themselves, they have unveiled its signature big-play passing game behind QB Zach Collaros. Collaros has passed for 1,576 yards and 14 TDs to a deep receiving corps that has five players with two or more TD catches. When pressured, or by design, Collaros has rushed for 225 yards and six TDs. The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise with redshirt freshman Eric Lefeld earning two starts.
If you're looking for a reason why Cincinnati is the Big East Conference's first bowl-eligible team, look no further than the Bearcats' defense. Since being a big question mark in the preseason, UC is plus-13 in turnover margin, with nine interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries. A revamped defensive line has produced 23 sacks led by DT Derek Wolfe with five and DE Dan Giordano and DE Brandon Mills with four each. LB J.K. Schaffer and CB Deven Drane have three interceptions apiece.
Pitt's offense will have to change with RB Ray Graham out for the year due a knee injury. He was ranked second in the nation in rushing when injured against Connecticut. He finished with 958 yards. Zach Brown is Graham's replacement and is a capable runner, but Graham is out of the mode of LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, the two men who preceded him and went to the NFL. A big question this week is the offensive line, which has been decimated by injury. Senior G Chris Jacobsen was lost for the year in the Iowa game, Lucas Nix has been out three games with an injury against South Florida and against UConn freshman OL Matt Rotheram suffered a season-ending ankle fracture.
Pitt has been turning up the pressure defending the passing game all season through the rush and leads the Big East in sacks with an average of 3.38 per game. That ranks fifth nationally. Sophomore DT Aaron Donald is leading the way with seven. Donald, DT Chas Alecxih and DE Brandon Lindsey rank among the Big East's top five in sacks. Pitt's attacking defense is tied for 12th nationally in tackles for a loss but that statistic is skewered somewhat because against Utah the Panthers managed a stunning 17 tackles for losses, including seven sacks. Pitt does need to do more work in forcing turnovers, having created only seven with four fumbles and three interceptions.
Bearcats: Before last year's loss to Pitt, Cincinnati had won two straight in the series during their back-to-back Big East Conference championship seasons in 2008 and '09, breaking a streak of seven straight Pitt victories. ... The last time Cincinnati played Pitt at Heinz Field was in 2009 when UC won a 45-44 thriller earning the Bearcats the Big East Conference title and a berth in the Sugar Bowl. ... With six wins already, the Bearcats have surpassed their win total for 2010 (four) and were the first Big East team to reach bowl eligibility by winning at South Florida on Oct. 22. ... Cincinnati ranks fifth in the FBS with 23 turnovers forced, including 11 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries. Last season the Bearcats had just 13 total turnovers gained. ... Junior Danny Milligan took over as UC's starting punt returner after D.J. Woods fumbled twice fielding punts on Oct. 15 vs. Louisville. ... Freshman OL Eric Lefeld made his second career start in the win at USF. He has appeared in all seven games this season.
Panthers: The Pitt-Cincinnati game matches up two of the three teams in the Big East who hold their own fate in their hands. The other team that could win the conference outright by going unbeaten the rest of the way is West Virginia. ... The Panthers have won five of six meetings with the Bearcats in Pittsburgh. ... The one loss was in a classic matchup in 2009 when the Bearcats overcame a 21-point deficit to win 45-44. ... QB Tino Sunseri's 419 yards passing against Connecticut were the most thrown for by a Pitt QB in eight years and were a collegiate record for Heinz Field. ... OL Chris Jacobson will seek a medical hardship waiver and a sixth year of eligibility after suffering the second season-ending injury of his career. In 2007 Jacobson suffered a right knee injury in the preseason. He had surgery on his left knee after the Iowa game. ... Redshirt freshman OL Matt Rotheram sustained a season-ending left angle fracture against UConn. He had played in all eight games, starting the last two at tackle and guard, respectively.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Isaiah Pead -- Pead provides the spark for the Bearcats offense. He has rushed for 703 yards and 8 touchdowns in seven games. He ranks fourth among active career leaders with a 6.47 yards per carry.
QB Zach Collaros -- Collaros has 14 touchdown passes but also has six interceptions, a few of which have occurred in the red zone. Collaros is a dual threat with six rushing TDs but is still improving on his decision making.
LB J.K. Schaffer -- He leads the team with 54 tackles and three interceptions. He is the captain of a vastly improved Bearcats defense which ranks second nationally in rush defense and eighth in sacks.
QB Tino Sunseri -- Sunseri comes off the best game of his career, passing for 419 yards against Connecticut and all eyes -- including the defense's -- will be on him from here on out. Without running back Ray Graham, the nation's second leading rusher, the offense is forced to feature its air game. Sunseri has shown an ability to hit open receivers and spread the ball around.
RB Zach Brown -- With Graham out, Brown will pick up the bulk of the carries. Brown is averaging only 3.1 yards on 41 rushes, but when entering in place of Graham he has shown he can catch the football, possessing 16 catches on the year, nine in the UConn game when he saw extensive action.
WR Mike Shanahan -- Pitt's leading pass catcher among receivers, Shanahan broke out of a slump with four catches against Connecticut. He had caught only one pass in the previous two games and was coming off a game against Utah in which he was held without a catch. While Pitt's offense likes to spread the ball around, Shanahan is a big play player who needs a chance to make those plays.
Panthers: RB Ray Graham (knee, out), OL Matt Rotheram (ankle, out), Q Trey Anderson (wrist, out).