Pitt/UCONN Preview

On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Panthers (4-5 Big East 3-2) plays host to the UConn Huskies (4-4 Big East 1-3) at Heinz Field (12:00pm). Needing victories in their final two contests, one would consider the bowl hopes of the Panthers to be on life support. The Huskies, also desperate for a victory to keep their own post season hopes alive, need two wins in their final three games to become bowl eligible.

Seventeen Pitt seniors will play their last collegiate football game at Heinz Field, including (fullbacks) Tim Murphy, Justin Acierno and Kellen Campbell, (offensive linemen) Charles Spencer and Dale Williams, (linebackers) J.J. Horne, Keith Malley and Doug Roseberry, (defensive linemen) Thomas Smith, Phil Tillman and Ron Idoko, (tailbacks) Raymond Kirkley and Marcus Furman, (defensive backs) Bernard "Josh" Lay and Tez Morris, (tight end) Erik Gill and (placekicker) Josh Cummings.

 

Series:  Connecticut leads, 1-0

Line:  Pittsburgh -12

Television:  ESPN Regional, WTAE-TV

Radio:  FM 104.7 (WPGB-FM), AM 970 (WBGG-AM), SSR (Channel 147)

 

Team Statistics

UConn / Pitt

Offense: 29.6 PPG / 25.6 PPG

Defense: 18.4 PPG / 22.0 PPG

Off Rush: 191.6 YPG / 120.8 YPG

Off Pass: 144.0 YPG / 220.6 YPG

Off Total: 335.6 YPG / 341.4  YPG

Def Rush: 147.4 YPG / 160.3 YPG

Def Pass: 148.5 YPG / 164.9 YPG

Def Total: 295.9 YPG / 325.2 YPG

T/O Margin: +6 / -3

 

 

Hidden Stats

Through the first five weeks Connecticut had the nations top rated defense. UConn is the first school in a decade to open its season with three consecutive shutouts. UConn is third in the nation in both passing (148.5 YPG) and passing efficiency defense (92.8 rating). They have more interceptions than touchdowns allowed and are holding opposing quarterbacks to just a 48% completion percentage. The Huskies are 13th in the nation in total defense, averaging 296 yards per game, and 18th in scoring defense (18.4 ppg). UConn remains ranked 27th nationally with a +6 (0.75 per game) margin and lead the nation in third down conversion defense at 21% (23-for-112). The Huskies lead the conference in scoring defense, passing defense, second in both total defense and turnover margin. They are trying to become the first active member of the league to top the conference in total defense in consecutive seasons. The Huskies rank second in the conference in passing defense behind West Virginia. As a team, the Huskies rushed for just 12 yards last week, a program-low since it went to Division I-A five years ago.

 

The Panthers have won 35 of their last 53 games including a 21-8 mark over its last 29 Big East games. Pitt has lost three games this year by a combined 15 points. Pitt ranks 25th nationally in total defense, giving up an average of 325.2 yards per game. The Panthers pass defense ranks seventh nationally, yielding 165 yards per game. They also rank 11th nationally in pass efficiency defense (103.7 rating). Pitt is tied for the Big East lead in red zone defense. Linebacker H.B. Blades leads the Big East and ranks 11th nationally with an average of 12.0 tackles per game. Darrelle Revis ranks second in the Big East and 18th nationally with an average of .44 interceptions per game (four total). He has 11 total passes defended, one behind team leader Bernard "Josh" Lay, who has 12. Revis is 23rd nationally (tied) with an average of 1.22 passes defended per game. Josh Lay ranks 12th nationally and third in the Big East with an average of 1.33 passes defended per game. Pitt has averaged 32.2 points per game over the last six contests. Tyler Palko is 24th nationally (tied) in points responsible for (14 points/ game). Greg Lee ranks first in receiving yards (89.4 avg.) and second in receptions (4.56 avg.) among Big East receivers. 

 

Last Week

UConn lost to West Virginia, 45-13.

Pitt lost at Louisville, 42-20.

Offense:

Randy Edsall is playing quarterback chairs again. He's yet to name the starter for Saturday's contest. Matt Bonislawski, the Natrona Heights native, started the first five games but went down with a separated shoulder and broken clavicle in that fifth game against Syracuse. Though Bonislawski's been throwing in practice the last couple of weeks, don't expect him to play. Either true freshman Dennis Brown, who was sacked seven times last week, or D.J. Hernandez, who is recovering from wrist surgery, will get the start. For the year UConn quarterbacks have passed for only 1152 yards (144.0 YPG) with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

UConn is one of just four schools in the nation to have two active players with more than 2,000 career rushing yards. Terry Caulley has 2,414 to his credit while Cornell Brockington has gained 2,106 career yards. Terry Caulley is one of only nine players in the country to average more than 100 rushing yards per game (minimum 2,000 career yards. Caulley is averaging 105.0 yards per game as a Husky (2414 yards in 23 games). For the season Caulley leads Connecticut, rushing for 560 yards on 121 carries (4.6) and six touchdowns.

Jason Williams, a McKeesport native, is a legitimate threat in the read zone but doesn't have the blazing speed needed to stretch the field. His 25 catches lead Connecticut this season. Running back Terry Caulley is second on the team with 18 receptions, followed by wide receiver Brandon Young (17), tight end Dan Murray (16) and wide receiver Brandon McLean (10).

Tyler Palko is starting to get a grasp on coach Matt Cavanaughs' pro style offense. One of the top players in the Big East, Palko is the epitome of a field general. He's a tough, old school player that leads his team to battle every game with a simple goal, do everything in your power to win the game. He's tied for the Big East lead with 14 TD passes and second in the conference in passing yards per game (218.7 avg.) and total offense (204.7 avg.).  

Pitt has only two 100-yard rushing games this year, both by true freshmen. LaRod Stephens-Howling had 101 versus Syracuse while Rashad Jennings rushed for 102 yards against Cincinnati. Combined, six Panther tailbacks have rushed 236 times for 1113 yards, a hefty 4.7 YPC, but only two touchdowns. Stephens-Howling leads Pitt with 367 yards on 76 carries for an average of 4.8 YPC.

Greg Lee, when on his game, can put pressure on any defense in the country. Lees' lack of concentration at times this season has probably cost the Panthers at least a game or two. Derek Kinder has shown an ability to make the big catch. On the season he's caught 30 passes for 310 yards (10.3) and three touchdowns. Where's the tight end in this offense?

Analysis:

After opening the season averaging 217.3 yards against inferior competition, inexperience and inconsistency along the Huskies' offensive line has bogged down the talented tandem of Terry Caulley and Cornell Brockington in recent weeks. An injury to starting fullback Lou Allen against WVU makes matters even worse for this struggling unit. However, there are too many questions surrounding the Pitt defense to write-off the Husky running game. The quarterback and receiver positions have been decimated by injuries. The Huskies will take an occasional shot down field but look for them to continue to use the quarterback as a running option first. 

The Panthers flash and smash combination of LaRod Stephens-Howling and Rashad Jennings, along with the continued progress of the offensive line, will eventually enable Matt Cavanaugh to run more of a ball controlled attack. The Pitt offensive line will have to be physical and remain focused. Though penalties have put the Panthers in far too many second or third down and long situations, the line has picked up its pass blocking and has afforded Tyler Palko ample time. Tyler Palko will need to step up into the pocket and scan the entire field. He must regain the ability to check off his primary receiver, finding his second and even third options. The wideouts need to remain focused. When recognizing a corner blitz they need to adjust, cutting their routes short.

Edge: Pitt

 

Defense:

The Huskies are a big play defense. They look to force their opponents into offensive mistakes. The defensive backs are excellent in coverage and close on the ball well. Shawn Mayne leads the Huskies with four sacks. Linebacker Ryan Henegan had a game-high 14 tackles last week against WVU. Darius Butler is third in the conference with three interceptions.

 

At press time the Panthers had the 25th ranked defense in the country. Pitt last finished a season ranked among the nation's top 25 in total defense in 2002. That year the Panthers yielded just 296 yards per game and finished with a No. 12 ranking. The 2001 unit ranked No. 7 at seasons' end, yielding just 284.64 yards per game. Over its last four contests the Pitt defense has forced a combined 12 turnovers (six interceptions and six fumbles). Freshman Gus Mustakas leads the Panthers with three sacks.  

Analysis:

Neither defense played particularly well in their last games. Pitt was scorched by Louisville for 42 points and 467 offensive yards. Connecticut wasn't much better, surrendering  45 points and 372 yards to West Virginia. Expect both defenses to make marked improvements on Saturday as neither team posses an offense the caliber neither Uof L nor WVU.

UConn will rely on a strong pass rush with the hope of forcing Palko to hurry his throws or to force passes into coverage. If Palko is continually flushed from the pocket or hurried on most passing plays, expect this secondary to have a huge game. The key for the UConn run defense is, as it's been, the linebackers. They're athletic, quick and get to the ball in a hurry.

Connecticut is starting two first year, converted defensive tackles on the offensive line and a red shirt freshman will get his first career start at left tackle. Pitt needs to be physical up front and allow the linebackers to hit the gaps in run defense. A healthy Thomas Smith would help considerably. Unfortunately, Smith is still on the mend from a toe injury and will see limited action. Containing the outside will be vital to any success they will have in protecting against the Husky running game. Making the first tackle will also go a long way.

Edge: Even

 

Special Teams:

 

Larry Taylor ranks 18th in the nation in punt returns (12.3 average). A couple of weeks ago he also ranked seventh in kickoff returns, but has since fallen below the national minimum to be ranked because of both UConn's shutout wins the first two games and teams kicking the ball as far away from him as possible. Earlier this season Taylor was one of only two players in the nation to rank in the top 20 of both kickoff and punt return yards. Two UConn kickers have combined to kick 12 of 18 field goals and 27 of 29 on PAT's.

 

Pitt is one of only three teams nationally to have two kickoff returns for scores this year. After missing two games from injury Josh Cummings is kicking in his usual fashion, which is very good. Cummings leads the Panthers in scoring with 54 points. He has connected on 13 of 17 field goals (.765) and is 15 for 15 on PATs. He ranks eighth nationally in field goals (1.86 FG per game). Among Big East kickers, he ranks first in field goals, field goal percentage and PAT percentage. Cummings is second in the conference in kick scoring (7.7 points per game). Adam Graessle ranks second in the Big East and 30th nationally with a 42.3-yard punting average. He's had 14 punts downed inside the 20 yard line and 12 punts more than 50 yards.

Analysis:

Injuries to Taylor and Jimmy McClam put the Huskies return teams behind the eight ball. The place-kicking combination of Matt Nuzie and Graig Vicdomino has been up and down. Kicking into a swirling wind in Heinz Field won't make their jobs any easier. The punting game is also a question mark. Shane Hussar is averaging a paltry 39.2 yards on 50 punts. That shouldn't matter. Hussar was benched after several short punts against West Virginia Wednesday night and walk-on Chris Pavasaris is expected to be the punter on Saturday.

The Panthers, conversely, have one of the top special team units from top to bottom in the Big East conference. Josh Cummings is a model of consistency. Adam Graessle seems to be slower in his delivery yet still showing a strong leg and good placement. The return game has yielded three touchdowns on the season and is a threat to go the distance on any given kick.

Edge: Pitt

Prediction: Pitt, 27-13

 

 

 


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