The driver's seat in the Big East title race and the BCS bid that goes to the Conference champion are on the line. It really doesn't get any better for this Pittsburgh team. Sure, the next game against West Virginia will be just as crucial, win or lose for the Panthers, but the Bearcats are up first.
The 101st edition of the Backyard Brawl will have to wait. And make no mistake about it, after three straight .500 or worse seasons for Coach Dave Wannstedt with no bowl trips, these Panthers are ravenous for success.
"Never would I have thought that I'd be going back to Cincinnati and for the magnitude to be so high,'' Pitt fifth-year senior safety Eric Thatcher, a Cincy native, said. "I'm excited about it. I can't wait to get home and to play in front of the fans and my family. (And) we definitely can't take them lightly.
"It's a big game for them, and it's a big game for us, too. Them not beating us in a while, that probably will make them play all that much harder. So, we've just got to go out and play our game and just stay focused. It's just exciting. You kind of dream about this when you're a kid, playing in a big-time game for a championship. So, we want to go out and have a strong effort.''
It's not a stretch to say that Pitt will need its best effort on offense and defense to secure a victory against Cincinnati. Both teams have overcome adversity this season, with each using multiple quarterbacks, to go with some tough losses. Panthers quarterback Bill Stull believed that both teams have found a way to win games this year, under various circumstances, and the one who continues that trend will end up with the win.
If special teams is the difference, one has to like Pitt's chances. It's return game is much-improved, especially punt returns, and the coverage units have been exceptional lately. Punter Dave Brytus has been solid, for the most part, while place-kicker Conor Lee has been spectacular.
Defensively, Pitt's front wall has harassed opposing quarterbacks relentlessly this season with sophomore ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus providing the pressure. Tackles Mick Williams and Rashaad Duncan also must have a big game against the run to force the Bearcats to the air.
On offense, if LeSean McCoy can run on Cincinnati, the Panthers should be able to dictate the tempo. Pitt has had numerous long drives this season, and ball control will be crucial this week.
The key matchup on the day is Pitt's redshirt sophomore left offensive tackle Jason Pinkston against Cincy's senior defensive end Connor Barwin, second in the Big East in sacks. Pinkston knows what's at stake in this game, but he even added something to the mix.
"It always means something to me to play Cincinnati,'' Pinkston said. "Ohio football, that goes back to the Big 33 with Pennsylvania versus Ohio. But this game certainly is the biggest this season with what's at stake for both teams, the Big East, maybe a BCS game and the trophy.''
That's where it all starts for the Panthers. Win the River City Rivalry Trophy for a fourth straight year, and many more accolades will follow.
But Pitt has to win today for that to happen.
The River City Rivalry
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