Since Cincinnati is 8-2 overall, 4-1 in the Big East, and ranked 19th nationally by the Associated Press going into its game against No. 20 Pittsburgh (7-2, 3-1) Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Bearcats' defense certainly rose to the occasion from the outset.
"The competition we have this week will be as good as we've had all year,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Their success hasn't been by accident. Their defense has been their mainstay the last few years.
"It's a very talented group and a group that has played together a long time, and our offensive line's going to have to step up to the challenge.''
Senior center C.J. Davis is in his fourth season as a starter for Pitt, so he certainly is well-acquainted with Cincinnati's defensive line. In particular, Davis was matched against Bearcats tackle Terrill Byrd.
"Most of their guys on defense have been playing since their freshman year,'' Davis said. "So, they're veterans, and they're real athletic. I believe the tight end plays both ways. He also plays D-end, and he has the most sacks in the Big East. So, we have to be aware of their pressures.
"I've been playing against Byrd now for four years, and he's probably going to do a great job. So, their D-line is very experienced and very athletic. Byrd, he mostly lines up over a guard, but he might lean on the center some, too. So, we'll see what happens with that, but I know him very well.
"They have a very consistent defense, and every week they bring their lunch pale,'' Davis added. "They do a great job with the run game and the passing game, so they're a very balanced defense. So, we have to make sure that we're very balanced on offense, too.''
Cincinnati's defensive ends, Connor Barwin and Lamonte Nelms, are extremely active with seven and 4.5 sacks, respectively, as well as 9.5 and 10 total stops behind the line. Barwin's quarterback drops rank him second in the Big East. Connecticut's Cody Brown leads the Conference with 10 sacks.
So, as Pitt's left offensive tackle, Jason Pinkston faces the top two pass-rushers in the Big East in the next three weeks.
"(Cincy's) defensive ends (are) very fast and athletic, kind of like Jabaal with a little bit Greg,'' Pinkston said, referring to Pitt D-ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus. "No. 5 (Barwin) and No. 10 (Nelms), they switch sides a lot, so I'll be going up against both throughout the game. But mostly 5.
"This little stretch coming up probably is going to be the toughest for me, facing some real good defensive ends. But we have two good ones on our team, and that helps me prepare every week. ... I really can't take any plays off with them, because I get a tough workout every day in practice with those guys.''
While Davis certainly has had an excellent season and is Pitt's most valuable offensive linemen, since he moved from left guard to center a couple weeks ago and the unit barely missed a beat. But it also can be argued that Pinkston has been the Panthers' best offensive lineman so far.
A talented 6-foot-4, 290-pound redshirt sophomore, Pinkston has committed just one penalty this season, as he jumped offsides against Louisville. And he didn't believe that he had any holding penalties.
"Knock on wood, I don't think so,'' Pinkston said sheepishly. "At least they haven't seen any.''
Wannstedt didn't hesitate when asked to comment on Pinkston's play.
"I think Jason has done a very good job,'' Wannstedt said. "For a guy who hasn't had a spring practice. When you look at his career, halfway through his freshman year he moves from defense to offense. Then, he gets hurt (as a sophomore) and has the shoulder surgery.
"(And) he never has had a full season of work, spring practice, offseason lifting and spring ball. But he's still done a very good job, and that probably wouldn't have happened if he wasn't such a good athlete and so conscientious with his work ethic. But he's really progressed very well this season.''
And Pinkston can't wait to take his play to another level the next few weeks.
"You always want to go out there and see how you hold up against somebody else,'' Pinkston said. "(Barwin) and the guy from UConn (Brown), they're leading. So, I always look forward to going into a big game and do what I need to do to help our team win. And I'll need to play well against those guys.
"But (line) coach (Tony) Wise always says that most mistakes are made by an O-linemen when they don't know the down, distance and situation that they're in. So, on the left side, if you don't know where you're at on the field, that's when you can make a mistake. So, I always try to stay aware about that.''
And that should help Pinkston and Pitt's offensive line be successful against Cincinnati's active defensive front.
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