Pitt coach Paul Chryst said earlier this week that it's probably a good thing the Panthers play on Friday rather than Saturday this week. It makes a little easier to move past last week's heartbreaking triple overtime loss to Notre Dame when the game is one day sooner. A win over the Irish would have been a season-defining victory, but the Panthers need to focus on the here and now. Namely, that means locking up a bowl bid in Paul Chryst's first season (a topic I wrote about in today's paper). That goal starts Friday with a win over Connecticut. The Huskies (3-6, 0-4 Big East) are eminently beatable, but weird things have been known to happen in November Friday night games. Let's take a look at the matchups...
Pitt offense vs. Connecticut defense
While they only put up 20 points, you could make a real case for last week being Pitt's most impressive offensive performance of the season. A number of late sacks on Tino Sunseri keep the overall rushing numbers down, but Ray Graham's 172 yards on the ground were more than any other running back against the Irish this season. Pitt's offensive line did an excellent job getting to the second level on blocks and springing the running backs for a couple of long runs. If you take out Graham's two long runs, Pitt's rushing numbers are actually quite modest, but those long plays made all the difference. I think it'll be the same strategy against Connecticut. Given the strength of UConn's defense (especially against the run), I don't think Pitt will be able to sustain long drives ripping off runs of six or seven yards, so getting a couple of 40-50 yarders would help immensely. Given how electric Graham looked last week, he certainly appears to have it in him. I would also expect a little bit more Rushel Shell tomorrow night. Shell got just one carry against the Irish and Chryst said he "didn't feel good about that."
Tino Sunseri had a bit of an off game last week, but he did extend his interception-free streak to six games. Like I said, I think the offensive gameplan will be somewhat similar this week, so the emphasis will be on the running game. The biggest thing Sunseri will need to do is simply get better on third down. The Panthers were just 1-14 on third down against the Irish. Connecticut does a good job getting pressure on the quarterback, so Sunseri will need to have some good pocket awareness and get the ball out of his hands quickly in some situations.
Connecticut runs a nominally 4-3 defense, but defensive end Trevardo Williams, listed as a defensive end, can move around to multiple positions on the defense. He's listed at 6-2, 233 pounds, so he's small enough to step back and play outside linebacker depending on what kind of scheme the Huskies are running. He can also create some advantages on the edge, and leads the Big East in sacks.
Pitt defense vs. Connecticut offense
The numbers say Pitt should dominate here, but the numbers don't always tell the whole story. Connecticut running back Lyle McCombs was somewhat highly touted coming into the year, but he (and the Huskies' rushing attack in general) has severely disappointed this season. They rank 116th in Division I-A in rushing with just 82.0 yards per game. If Aaron Donald can get the same kind of interior pressure on run plays he did last week, Pitt should have no problem shutting down the Huskies' running game.
That would put the ball in the hands of redshirt sophomore quarterback Chandler Whitmer. Whitmer has actually looked OK for stretches this season (especially for a quarterback essentially playing without a running game), but has had a bit of a problem not throwing interceptions. Pitt's pass defense, meanwhile, has shown a real nose for the ball this season. They had two picks last week (and Todd Thomas also came very, very close to another). None of Connecticut's receivers are very physically imposing, with none taller than 6-foot-1. K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts have gotten better as the season has gone on, so if they can build on last week's strong performance, that means a very successful performance for Pitt's defense.
In all, I have a hard time seeing Connecticut's offense getting too much going against Pitt's defense, but, as always, one or two big plays can swing things either way.
Basically, the biggest challenge for Pitt will be, as Chryst often says, playing one opponent and not two. If Pitt is truly 100 percent over last week's loss and focused entirely on Connecticut, there's no reason the Panthers can't win convincingly. Further, if they can execute at the same level as they did against Notre Dame, they can build on a lot of things they did really, really well. The Panthers have been so inconsistent this year, though, that it's tough to very confidently predict how they're going to come out. A solid performance in all facets tomorrow night would be a huge step forward for Pitt in terms of just establishing the consistency that Chryst wants to bring to this team and this program.
NOTE: Because of my travel plans out to Connecticut, we had to push back my weekly Pitt football chat one day. I'll be chatting LIVE at http://www.post-gazette.com/chat/ FRIDAY AT NOON.