Pitt Ready For Heavyweight Fight

Pitt's LeSean McCoy described it as a 15-round fight, the Panthers' upcoming game against Cincinnati with the River City Rivalry Trophy on the line, and the sophomore tailback believed his team was equipped well enough to keep the hardware for a fourth straight year.

More importantly for No. 20 Pittsburgh (7-2, 3-1) and the No. 19 Bearcats (8-2, 4-1), an advantage in the Big East title race is up for grabs as well when the two meet Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

"The whole year, it's gone pretty good for us, winning close games, finding different ways to win,'' McCoy said. "So, we're ready for a close fight, a tough fight. All phases of the game, offense, defense and special teams, if we play well in every phase we'll win the fight because we're in great shape.

"It's obvious that everybody is more into it this year. We know what's at stake, and we've been preparing for it for two weeks. We can't point fingers anywhere else, because it's all on us. We know what we're playing for. We're not playing to mess up somebody else's success. We have our own goals.''

Pitt will go a long way toward securing one, the Big East championship, by beating Cincinnati. The Panthers also need to knock off arch-rival West Virginia in the 101st Backyard Brawl Friday, Nov. 28, at noon at Heinz Field. The game against Cincinnati will be televised nationally by ESPN 2, while the WVU matchup is a national telecast by ABC-TV.

"Playing good on the road, that's worked out real well for us this season,'' McCoy said. "But this is the point in the year where we really need it. We have a big game with Cincinnati on the road, so we hope to keep our streak going.

"It's also a national TV game, and a lot's at stake. We can win the Big East championship, and great players on this team like Scott McKillop, C.J. Davis, they haven't had a chance to do that before. We want to do it for them, for Coach, we want to win the Big East and get to a big bowl game.''

To accomplish that, the Panthers must be able to run the ball against a tough Cincinnati defense that likely will be looking to stop McCoy at all costs. And when quarterback Bill Stull has to pass, he'll be harassed by a veteran defensive line led by sack-happy ends Connor Barwin and Lamonte Nelms, while tackles Terrill Byrd and Adam Hoppel are serious run-stoppers.

The Pitt wideouts also will be defended by a veteran secondary that has three probable future NFL players in cornerbacks Mike Mickens, the team leader with 65 total tackles and 43 solo stops, DeAngelo Smith and free safety Brandon Underwood. The strong safety, junior Aaron Weber, joins his secondary-mates among the leaders in tackles.

"We've been talking all week about their D-backs, how they're going to get drafted,'' Stull said. "So, I just have to be smart. There may be some throws that I think are there, but they might not be. So, I might need to think about it another second and go through our check-downs.

"I just can't force anything against a talented defense and secondary, because turnovers are going to be critical in this game. Their DBs, I'd have to say they're tops, right up there with the best, and pretty much their whole defensive backfield is either going to be drafted or getting looks from the NFL.

"They're a good bunch of football players who've been playing together for a while,'' Stull added, "and they already have a DB in the NFL. He plays for the Ravens. So, they have a real good secondary, and they're going to be a big challenge for us. Like I've said, turnovers will be the key in this game.''

Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh has been game-planning against Cincinnati's defense for four seasons now, and he remembers when the majority of the Bearcats were just young cubs making their way. Like Barwin, who is a converted tight end who can cause nightmares for an offensive tackle.

Barwin has seven sacks, seven pass breakups and three blocks at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. Nelms has 4.5 sacks and an interception, and between them they've stopped opponents behind the line 20 times this season. Mickens has nine pass breakups and four interceptions, while Smith has two picks and seven breakups.

"I remember a couple years ago, looking at them and thinking that they were just sophomores and that they would be really good as seniors,'' Cavanaugh said. "So, they obviously have a great secondary. They're very dangerous. Both of their cornerbacks are very good at reading the quarterback.

"They break on the ball very well, and they make a good transition from the secondary to moving forward to stop the run. And their safeties cover a lot of ground, no matter how deep they play. So, they're going to be a big challenge for our offense, but I'm confident that we're up for it.''

And with the River City Rivalry Trophy and driver's seat in the Big East title race at stake, Pitt should be ready for a fight to the finish.

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