Alright, everyone, hope the turkey has finally settled in your stomach and any leftovers are stored away in the fridge because it's just about time for the final home game of Pitt's season. The Panthers will take on No. 21 Rutgers tomorrow at noon on ESPN2, and still have bowl eligibility to play for. It would take a fairly significant upset Saturday, though most Vegas books actually have the Panthers as a 1-2 point favorite (for entertainment purposes only, of course). Both these teams are on their way out of the Big East soon, but for now, this is a Big East game with some pretty significant conference implications, so let's take a look at the matchups.
Pitt offense vs. Rutgers defense
For the third game in a row, Pitt will face one of the country's elite defense (you could quibble with Connecticut, but their numbers put them in the top 20). Against both the Irish and the Huskies, it has been a case of the Panthers not being able to put together four quarters of football. Against Notre Dame, they started strong, but couldn't move the ball at all — even just to kill the clock — in the fourth quarter and overtime. In Connecticut, they stalled in the first half but scored 17 unanswered in the second half when they had to speed things up a bit. Against Rutgers, Pitt doesn't need to blow the doors off anyone offensively, but they do need a consistent effort from the first quarter to the fourth.
I think one of the biggest factors as to whether or not Pitt will win this game is Rushel Shell's involvement in the offense. He really hasn't had much of a role the last two games, mostly because Pitt wasn't running the ball as well as it would have liked (the Panthers got yards against Notre Dame, but most of those came on a couple of long runs from Ray Graham). For this team to be comfortable in the offense Paul Chryst wants to run, the Panthers need to get a successful and balanced rushing attack going. The Scarlet Knights have been stout on the ground this season (allowing 108.0 yards per game) but in the one game they lost, Kent State ran the ball 50 times for 224 yards. That also would allow Pitt to control the time of possession and keep Rutgers' offense (which largely would like to do the same thing) off the field.
In the passing game, the biggest challenge will be for Tino Sunseri to just keep doing what he has been doing. Namely, not throwing interceptions. Tino has gone seven games without a pick, but Rutgers has one of the best ball-hawking secondaries in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights have 15 interceptions on the season, and those are the kind of plays that can turn this game into a blowout in a hurry. As Pitt showed against Connecticut last game and a few other contests earlier in the season, it isn't really a team that's comfortable playing from behind. A consistent running game and safe/effective passing game are keys to keep it close throughout.
Pitt defense vs. Rutgers offense
Rutgers' offense hasn't been anything special this season, but it has done just enough for the Scarlet Knights to get by. Jawan Jamison has been the guy at running back all season, but he suffered an ankle injury a few weeks ago and was limited in Rutgers' win over Cincinnati last week. In his stead, all Savon Huggins did was rush for 179 yards on 41 carries. Jamison said earlier this week that his ankle was "95 percent," but I would expect both backs to play a role Saturday. Pitt's run defense, like the rest of the team, showed up late against Connecticut two weeks ago, but looked pretty good in the second half. My biggest concern would be playaction passes from quarterback Gary Nova. That was an area that burned the Panthers two weeks ago (especially those passes to the tight end in the first half), and if Rutgers gets the running game going, it could be a problem again. Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable also preached tackling this week, another area of concern against the Huskies. The Scarlet Knights, especially the running backs, do a good job of running through contact, so all those extra tackling drills will have to pay off for Pitt Saturday.
In the passing game, Nova has been solid this season, though he has shown a propensity to throw some picks now and then. In the loss to Kent State, for instance, he threw six (yes, SIX) interceptions. Pitt has done a good job taking advantage of poor throws this season, and an interception early could go a long way in swinging some momentum in Pitt's favor (much like in the upset win over Virginia Tech in September).