Cincinnati Offense Underrated

Much has been said about the defenses on both teams when No. 20 Pitt (7-2, 3-1) meets No. 19 Cincinnati (8-2, 4-1) Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, and rightfully so since both are among the best in the Big East Conference.

However, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Phil Bennett believed that the Bearcats were highly underrated on offense and deserved mention as well.

"They have two pretty good backs, and they've run for more than 100 yards in most of the games that they've played,'' Bennett said. "And in the spread offense, that's pretty good. Their quarterback, Tony Pike, his progression in passing has been good. He knows what he's doing. They have a lot of hot, high-percentage throws.

"They have some big plays, but that usually comes with runs after the catch. They're very good at that. Also, they're primarily a tempo offense. They don't let you do a lot of substitution. Once you get a personnel group out there, you better be prepared to go with it a while. Especially at midfield, it gets to be a very fast tempo. So, it's tough to substitute against them.''

Bennett noted that Pike basically reads the defense and calls everything from the line. He stops, looks to the sideline and gets the play-call from there. Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt added that since the running game is solid with junior Jacob Ramsey and sophomore John Goebel, Pike only has to throw about 30 times per game.

"(And Pike) has a real uncanny ability to avoid the rush, keep his focus downfield and make plays on the move,'' Wannstedt said. "And he's not on the move to just run it. He keeps plays alive by moving around, and then he'll throw it downfield. He's not a true scrambler, but he can get away from a rush.''

Pike, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound junior, has played in eight games and completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns with four interceptions. He clearly moves the ball around, as seven Bearcats have at least nine catches.

Senior Dominick Goodman (63 catches, 802 yards) and junior Mardy Gilyard (48, 758) are the best with six and eight touchdown catches, respectively. Other top receivers are sophomore slot-man Marcus Barnett and running back Goebel with 23 and 21 catches, respectively. Tight end Kazeem Alli has just nine catches, but two went for touchdowns.

"Their receivers are very tough,'' Pitt fifth-year senior safety Eric Thatcher said. "They were tough to play last year, and I think that Gilyard, Barnett and even Goodman are very good. And I think they just might be about the best receiving corps that we'll face this year when it comes right down to it.''

Ramsey is listed as the starting running back, and he has a team-high 568 yards and one touchdown. Goebel also plays a lot and has 436 yards and six scores. Both average nearly five yards per carry and 100 yards per game combined, so they provide a solid one-two punch.

One area that can't be discounted is special teams, because Gilyard is dangerous on kickoff returns. He averages more than 30 yards per runback with two touchdowns, including a 100-yard jaunt for a score. Senior punter Kevin Huber also is a weapon. He averages 45.2 yards per punt with 16 better than 50 yards and 16 inside the 20 as well.

"Special teams will be very important, because they have a dangerous returner in Gilyard, who has returned two kicks for touchdowns,'' Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "That's two more than we have. So, anytime the ball gets in his hands he's capable of getting six points. Their punter is the best in the nation, a returning All-American, so this is a game that we'll have to bring our A game.''

Wannstedt agreed wholeheartedly.

"Goodman is a big, strong and physical player with great hands,'' Wannstedt said. "He's a playmaker in his own right. Gilyard is a little smaller, but he's very dangerous. He's probably the most dangerous guy we'll face once he has the ball in his hands. He's got the quickness and speed to make a lot of guys miss.

"The first touchdown he scored against Louisville last week, it was that quick screen underneath, and he went 40 yards. Realistically, he should have been tackled after about seven or eight yards, and instead he made about four or five guys miss on his way to a touchdown.

"He returns kickoffs for them,'' Wannstedt added, "and you see the same thing from an ability standpoint on his kickoff returns as you do when he gets the ball in his hands as a receiver. So, again, they have two different receivers, (and) they complement each other very nicely.''

And they're players that the Pitt defense certainly must contain.

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