Pittsburgh (7-5) vs. Kentucky (6-6)
Saturday, January 8th, 12:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The Pittsburgh Panthers and the Kentucky Wildcats will play in one of the final bowl games of the 2010-11 season, as they will square off on January 8th in the Compass Bowl, which will be played in Birmingham, Alabama.
Shortly after the regular season concluded, Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt announced his resignation. Wannstedt was named the 34th head coach in Pitt football history in 2004, and he compiled a 42-31 record over six seasons at the helm of his alma mater.
"The past six years have been among the most gratifying of my entire career," said Wannstedt, a 1974 graduate of Pitt and former standout offensive tackle for the Panthers. "To be the head coach at my university was the realization of a lifelong dream. It has been an honor and privilege to serve Pitt and its football program."
The Panthers decided on a new leader for the program, hiring Michael Haywood as head coach. Haywood joined the Panthers after orchestrating the biggest turnaround in major college football this past season as head coach at Miami of Ohio. Unfortunately, Haywood never got to coach a single game for Pitt, as he was arrested just a couple of weeks after being hired and charged with domestic battery in the presence of a minor. As a result of the pending legal trouble, Haywood was fired on New Year's Day.
Wannstedt, who originally planned to coach the Panthers in this Compass Bowl, changed his mind on Monday. As a result, Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson has named defensive coordinator Phil Bennett the team's interim coach, and he will lead the Panthers into action on January 8th.
"Phil Bennett has been a head coach, is respected by the players and staff, and will do a fine job leading the Pitt football team in Birmingham," said Pederson in a statement. "We are fortunate to have someone with Phil's talents available to assume this role."
This matchup marks Pitt's third consecutive postseason berth and 27th all-time bowl appearance. Last year, the Panthers defeated North Carolina, 19-17, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. During this recently completed regular season, Pitt went 7-5 overall and tied for first place in the Big East with a 5-2 league mark.
Kentucky will be led in this showdown by first-year head coach Joker Phillips. The Wildcats own a 6-6 record, marking the first time since 1909-13 that they have notched at least six wins in five consecutive seasons. The highlight for Phillips first season as program leader was a thrilling victory over South Carolina which marked the biggest comeback in school history, as UK rallied from a 28-10 halftime deficit for a 31-28 win.
Overall, this will be the 15th bowl appearance for Kentucky, which owns an 8-6 postseason record. It will be UK's first trip to the Compass Bowl, although the Wildcats have made two postseason appearances in Birmingham. UK lost to West Virginia, 20-16, in the 1983 Hall of Fame Bowl and defeated Wisconsin, 20-19, in the 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl.
"It will be a huge challenge and an exciting time for our football program to play in the BBVA Compass Bowl," Phillips said. "I've had a chance to watch Pitt numerous times. Their running attack is very strong and their quarterback (Tino Sunseri) has completed more than 65 percent of his passes.
This game marks the first-ever meeting between Pittsburgh and Kentucky on the gridiron.
Pitt is a rather mediocre offensive football team by most standards, as it is averaging 26.2 ppg and 367.8 total ypg. The Panthers have scored 37 offensive touchdowns through 12 games, 22 of which have been rushing scores. Dion Lewis didn't have as great a season as most expected, but his 956 rushing yards and 12 rushing scores are impressive nonetheless. He gets plenty of help from Ray Graham, who brings 832 yards and eight scores into this bowl game. While Lewis averages 4.9 yards per carry, Graham owns a far more impressive mark of 6.4 ypc.
As for Pittsburgh's passing attack, Tino Sunseri has completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,476 yards with 15 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. His top target is clearly Jon Baldwin, who has hauled in 52 receptions for 810 yards and five scores. The Panthers have committed 21 turnovers, but they do move the chains on 42 percent of their third-down conversion attempts.
The man to watch on defense for Pittsburgh is Jabaal Sheard, a senior defensive end who recently took home Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors. Sheard has compiled 52 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, while adding four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
In part because of Sheard's efforts, the Panthers are allowing only 19.8 ppg and 304.2 total ypg. They are surrendering only 3.5 yards per rushing attempt and have posted 30 sacks, two major contributing factors in the team's success.
When this bowl matchup was announced, Sheard was hoping to get a sack or two against Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline, but Hartline has been suspended for thereby ending the senior's career on a sour note. Hartline was arrested and was charged with second degree disorderly conduct, alcohol intoxication in a public place and failure to notify the department of transportation of a change of address. As a result, sophomore Morgan Newton is expected to be under center for the 'Cats in this contest.
Newton has attempted just seven passes all season, as he watched Hartline complete 66.2 percent of his attempts for 3,178 yards with 23 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Randall Cobb, one of the nation's most versatile players, threw three touchdown passes for the 'Cats while rushing for 401 yards and five scores. Cobb, who also returned a punt for a touchdown, has done most of his damage from the receiver position, as he has hauled in 79 receptions for 955 yards and seven touchdowns. Chris Matthews is another receiver to watch, as he has turned 57 catches into 897 yards and nine scores.
Kentucky is generating 33.0 ppg and 437.2 total ypg, numbers that will be difficult to reach considering Hartline's suspension and the strength of the Pittsburgh defense. Derrick Locke has rushed for 816 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing four games, and the tailback figures to get plenty of work against the Panthers.
Defensively, the Wildcats are surrendering 353.9 total ypg and 28.5 ppg. They have given up 41 touchdowns to opposing offenses, 28 of which have been rushing scores. There have been many big plays made through the air against Kentucky, which is yielding 13.5 yards per pass completion. The fact that the 'Cats have come up with only eight interceptions is concerning. Keep an eye on Danny Trevathan, as he has racked up 130 total tackles, including 16 TFLs.
Despite the loss of Hartline, give an edge to the Wildcats. Cobb and Locke are still dangerous weapons, and the Panthers have had the added distraction of losing their coach.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Kentucky 24, Pittsburgh 17
01/04 11:12:06 ET