Pitt's Defense Shifts Gears Again

After facing several teams that use a spread offense and a run-oriented option squad in Navy, the Pitt football team goes up against pass-happy Cincinnati Saturday at noon at Heinz Field.

This is a completely different philosophy for the No. 23-ranked Bearcats (6-1), who have a new coach in Brian Kelly and brought in a new quarterback in Ben Mauck. Cincinnati throws the ball all around the field now, and that will test the Pittsburgh (2-4) defense.

"For us to beat Cincinnati, we need to play lights out defense,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They're one of the more explosive teams, not only that we'll see, but also one of the more explosive teams in the country.''

It all starts with Mauck, who transferred from Wake Forest after playing in the season-opener and suffering a season-ending knee injury. He was in his junior season there. Mauck has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,358 yards and 15 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

"I used to read about him a lot and heard a lot about him, since he was Mr. Ohio, and he looks like a tough, competitive quarterback,'' Pitt safety Eric Thatcher, a Cincinnati native, said. "We have to keep him in the pocket and not let him get outside to air it out. More than anything, though, we've got to put some pressure on him in any way.

"We have to cover their receivers, and our D-line has to provide pressure. The secondary and linebackers, we have to worry about the passing game because Mauck throws the ball a lot, and he really likes to spread it around. He can make plays when you think it's over, so we can't stop early.''

Mauck's favorite targets are wideouts Marcus Barnett and Dominick Goodman with 33 and 32 catches, respectively, for more than 400 yards each. Barnett has eight touchdown catches, while Goodman has four. Cincy goes with a three-wide set more often than not, and Marshwan Gilyard has 27 catches for 380 yards and three scores.

Tight end Connor Barwin and running backs Butler Benton and Greg Moore also have double-digit catches for the Bearcats. Moore has two TD catches, while Benton and Barwin have one each. Benton and Moore are the leading rushers with 399 and 322 yards, respectively, and two scores each.

"They have a lot of different options, a good blend of everything, but they like to go to three wide receivers a lot and they all can make plays,'' Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "They can go up to get the ball, so it's a big challenge for our secondary and linebacking corps.''

Defensively, Cincinnati has mostly junior and senior starters on an experienced unit. Outside linebacker Corey Smith and strong safety Haruki Nakmura lead with 43 tackles each. Nakmura also has three interceptions. Defensive end Anthony Hoke has five sacks, while cornerback Mike Mickens has four interceptions.

"They've very opportunistic, and they make plays,'' Pitt quarterback Pat Bostick said. "They have a good secondary and a good front four, a good front seven, for that matter. ... They're relatively confident in what they do, and they're very good at it. They're very smart and are a very sound defensive team.''

Opportunistic is the operative word here. The Bearcats have a plus-11 turnover margin, while is at minus-9. This truly is the difference in the team's seasons.

"We have to limit our turnovers against them and force them to do some things that they don't usually do, and that's turn the ball over,'' Wannstedt said. "If we can do that on defense and pressure the quarterback, we should be successful against them.''

The winner of the game receives the River City Rivalry trophy, a gaudy piece of hardware that has resided in Pitt's trophy case the past two years.

"We want to keep that thing here,'' Thatcher said.

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