CINCINNATI -- Happy game day everyone, we're just about eight hours until kickoff between Pitt and Cincinnati in both teams' Big East openers (and Cincinnati's season opener).
I'll be chatting on post-gazette.com at noon today, so stop by and ask me some questions about tonight's matchup. For now, here are my three keys to tonight's game.
1. Pitt's run defense: The Panther defense looked like swiss cheese against Youngstown State last week, as the Penguins tore up 204 rushing yards on 46 carries. The defensive line should get a boost with the return of Tyrone Ezell and Shayne Hale from suspension, but the fundamentals, especially the tackling, will have to improve if Pitt's defense wants any chance of shutting down Cincinnati's offense. Bearcats quarterback Munchie Legaux is a real rushing threat, and even though Isaiah Pead is gone, Cincinnati's top two rushers, senior George Winn and sophomore Jameel Poteat, played in 13 and 10 games, respectively, last year. They combined for 327 yards and three touchdowns in relief duty for Pead. Legaux added 185 rushing yards of his own last year in relief of Collaros. Pitt struggled containing Kurt Hess scrambling last week, so they'll have to do a better job of keying on the quarterback tonight.
2. Win the big plays: Against Youngstown State last week, Pitt didn't register a sack or force a turnover on defense, while they gave the ball away twice, both in Penguins territory. One or two big plays (sacks, turnovers, etc.) early would go a long way in establishing momentum for a Pitt team that could certainly use some. If this game ends up being close, those are the kinds of plays that will end up being the difference. Additionally, those momentum-swinging plays will help quiet the crowd that I expect to be loud for this season-opening, nationally-televised conference night game.
3. Establishing an early presence: Last week, Pitt got punched in the mouth by Youngstown State early and clearly wasn't ready for it. There are obviously a number of psychological reasons that Pitt needs to strike early if it wants to have a chance in this game. Cincinnati is probably smelling blood in the water after watching the Panthers last week, and Pitt needs to show early that it's not the same team. Otherwise, they could be in for a long night. Further, though, taking an early lead, or at least keeping it close, would allow the Panthers to play a game plan I think they'd be more comfortable in. Last week, Tino Sunseri threw the ball 30 times, which is I'm sure more than anyone (especially Paul Chryst) would like. An early lead would allow Pitt to lean on Ray Graham, who should look at least a bit stronger after game reps and another few days of recovery, as well as Isaac Bennett and back-from-suspension Rushel Shell.
What do you all think will make the difference tonight? Remember, make sure to stop by my chat on post-gazette.com in about 15 minutes.
UPDATE: If you missed my chat today, here's a link to the archive. Thanks for all the great questions.