Pitt has tough task ahead

PITTSBURGH – Cincinnati’s undefeated Bearcats generate offense like they’re playing a video game, scoring 41 or more points three times in their last five games. Their starting quarterback goes down, and the backup plays even better than the regular did.

No. 14 Pittsburgh couldn’t help but being impressed while watching No. 5 Cincinnati pile up 711 yards behind backup quarterback Zach Collaros during a 47-45 victory over Connecticut, a team the Panthers trailed by 15 points before rallying to beat.

‘They’re throwing the ball all over the place,’ Pitt defensive lineman Gus Mustakas said.

Throw it all over Heinz Field on Saturday, and the No. 5 Bearcats (11-0, 6-0 in Big East) will be trying to unleash their dare-you-to-stop-us offense in a BCS bowl.

Regardless, Pitt (9-2, 5-1) hasn’t spent the week trying to rig up some gimmick defense to slow quarterback Tony Pike or wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, the players most responsible for Cincinnati’s 28-21 win over the Panthers last season. Pike has thrown eight TD passes in his last two games, six against Illinois on Friday, but Pitt knows there is only one way to effectively control him.

Don’t let him get the ball very often.

While the Bearcats don’t give up yards and points as quickly as they produce them, they yield a lot – 1,338 yards and 102 points in their last three games. If the Panthers avoid turnovers, get a big day from freshman running back Dion Lewis (1,446 yards) and Bill Stull (19 TD passes, 6 interceptions) spreads the ball among his receivers, their best defense against Cincinnati might be a good offense.

‘Every time we go on the field, we think we can score on every possession,’ coach Dave Wannstedt said. ‘That’s the way it’s drawn up. That’s how we practice. That’s what our kids believe.’

The Panthers played their poorest game of the season offensively while losing to rival West Virginia 19-16 on Friday, dropping them from No. 8 to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll and making Saturday’s de facto Big East championship game less attractive nationally. Two Top 10 teams in a season-ending game would have been a showcase for the conference.

To avoid a second successive loss that would likely send a team that was in the Top 10 two weeks ago to a lower-tier bowl – a major disappointment given their 9-1 start – the Panthers know they must get their offense back in a hurry. They trail only Cincinnati in total offense in the conference.

‘If it comes to a shootout, we think we can hang with anybody,’ tight end Nate Byham said.

Cincinnati, which is trying to complete the first 12-0 regular season in school history, leads the Big East in scoring (39.4), total offense (472.7 yards per game) and passing offense (322 yards). The Bearcats have allowed only nine sacks while scoring fewer than 28 points only once – a 24-21 victory over West Virginia.

‘We definitely can match them because we’re not going to let them come in here and do what they want to do,’ Pitt tight end Dorin Dickerson said. ‘We’re going to run our offense and run our defense and play our game. We’re going to be the better team at the end of the day. That’s what we’re striving for, and that’s what we have to do this week.’

Wannstedt wasn’t happy with his team’s preparation for West Virginia, although he didn’t blame it on any premature thoughts about playing Cincinnati.

If Pitt needs any further incentive beyond the obvious, here’s something to ponder: Nine wins for Pitt, rather than their first 10-win regular season since 1981, could mean the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., or the International Bowl in Toronto rather than, possibly, the Sugar Bowl.

‘Coach Wannstedt hit on it,’ linebacker Adam Gunn said. ‘Last year we were happy with nine wins, and we were excited to play in the Sun Bowl (a 3-0 loss to Oregon State). This year, we have nine wins, but we’re not happy at all.”