Pittsburgh (4-5) at Connecticut (3-6)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Friday, Nov. 9, 8 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Rentschler Field (38,066) -- Hartford, Connecticut. Television: ESPN. Home Record: Pitt 3-2, UConn 2-2. Away Record: Pitt 1-3, UConn 1-4. Neutral Record: Pitt 0-0, UConn 0-0. Conference Record: Pitt 1-3, UConn 0-4 Series Record: Series is tied, 4-4.
GAME NOTES: After a crushing road loss, the Pittsburgh Panthers will travel to Rentschler Field looking to get back to .500 on the season against a Connecticut Huskies squad that is still in search of its first Big East victory of the year.
Missed opportunities were plentiful for Pittsburgh in its showdown with No. 4 Notre Dame in South Bend as the Panthers fell 29-26 in triple overtime. In the loss Pittsburgh let a 20-6 lead in the fourth quarter slip away and missed what would have been a game-winning field goal when Kevin Harper's 33-yard attempt sailed off target in overtime. The loss put an end to Pittsburgh's two-game winning streak.
Failing to capitalize was a theme for UConn last weekend as well. The Huskies fell 13-6 to South Florida by turning the ball over on all three of their possessions in the fourth quarter. The Huskies were absolutely stymied on the ground, managing just 1.4 yards per carry. With the loss, UConn remains without a win in conference play this season (0-4) and 3-6 overall putting it dangerously close to being eliminated from bowl eligibility. The loss was also the fourth straight for the Huskies, their longest skein since the 2005-2006 season.
Neither team has gotten the upper-hand in the all-time series, which dates back to only 2004 when UConn became a football member of the Big East. In that time the two squads have split eight contests, with Pittsburgh's 35-20 win at Heinz Field last season the most recent pairing.
Ray Graham did not seem to care about the Fighting Irish's national ranking last weekend as he posted a huge day on the ground. Graham rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown with a stellar 7.2 yards per carry average. His yardage total was the most surrendered by the Irish this season in a single game and puts Graham firmly on track for his first 1,000-yard season. Graham currently sits at 794 yards with the effort against Notre Dame his second straight 100- yard game. Graham had 958 yards last season before a knee injury against this same Connecticut squad ended his season. Graham has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in total offense with an additional 269 yards receiving. He has also been Pittsburgh's best at finding the end zone, with his 10 total touchdowns more than double that of any other player.
Getting back to the run was imperative for Pittsburgh which has been more heavily reliant on the pass game this season. However against Notre Dame the aerial assault was severely slowed with the Panthers finishing with just 164 yards. That is more than 100 yards behind the squads season average (268.4 ypg). Before that effort, Tino Sunseri had really been excelling in the offensive system of first-year head coach Paul Chryst. Sunseri has completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,363 yards and 14 touchdowns. Both his touchdown total and yards total are the third best marks in the Big East.
Someone has to catch those passes and thus far Devin Street has been carrying the bulk of that responsibility. Street is the leading receiver (53 receptions, 730 yards, 4 TDs) in the conference and holds the top marks for receptions (5.89) and yards (81.1) per game. If Street continues to retain that ranking he will be the first pass catcher since current NFL standout Larry Fitzgerald to accomplish the feat for the Panthers. Street hasn't been doing it alone though with Mike Shanahan (41 receptions, 669 yards) the third leading receiver in the conference in yards. Both will be looking to bounce back from a combined 73 yards against Notre Dame.
The Pittsburgh defense was fortunate to have held Notre Dame in check for most of the game as the Panthers surrendered 522 yards of total offense in the loss. That was the most yards allowed in a game this season by Pittsburgh, which while not overly dominant, has at least been serviceable on the defensive side of the ball, ranking fourth in the Big East in total defense (360.1 ypg) and scoring (22.3 ppg). Pittsburgh is also one of only three teams in the Big East to have a positive turnover margin (+7).
At the forefront of those efforts is Jason Hendricks who has been stellar in the secondary, collecting a team-high four interceptions as well as six passes defended. Hendricks is also the lead tackler on the team with 63 stops thus far.
Getting a pass rush has not been as much a part of the defense with the team managing only 17 sacks this season. Aaron Donald (9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) provides the only real threat up front.
Offensive inability has been the real weak point of Connecticut's squad this season. The Huskies could not have made that more plain in the loss to South Florida, mustering only six points and 327 yards of total offense. That offensive output wasted another strong game from the defense which gave up just 283 yards of total offense. Connecticut didn't sustain long drives in the game with only one red zone trip, something that has plagued it all season. The Huskies have only 22 possessions in the red zone this season, the second worst mark in the conference.
Also not helpful was the three turnovers, two of which came off of interceptions from Chandler Whitmer. After holding his own during the first few weeks of the season, Whitmer has really begun to struggle with his consistency. He has been picked off seven times in the last four games while throwing only three touchdown passes. His 13 total picks are almost more than double his touchdown total (seven).
Teams are able to pin their ears back and attack the quarterback when there is nothing coming from the running game. UConn has only managed 738 yards rushing as a team this season, while averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Coming off a very strong 2011 campaign, Lyle McCombs has been a disappointment this season. McCombs has rushed for only 547 yards on 164 carries and has had just one 100- yard performance. In fact the 47 yards he gained against South Florida was the most he has put up in four weeks and the most against a Big East opponent.
While McCombs has take a step back, the ascension of wide receiver Geremy Davis has been fun to watch. Davis has not been a consistent producer, in large part due to inconsistencies in the passing game, but has shown flashes of brilliance with five games of 75 or more receiving yards, including a seven-catch, 98-yard effort against South Florida. Overall Davis has caught 36 balls for 547 yards which are both team-highs. Ryan Griffin (20 receptions, 315 yards, 4 TDs) has been a favored target in the red zone with a team-high in touchdown receptions from the tight end spot.
For all its offensive deficiencies, UConn has been stellar on defense. Connecticut is the top ranked team in the Big East, holding foes to a minuscule 290.2 yards per game average. That number makes the Huskies one of only 10 schools in the country to give up fewer than 300 yards per game. What the Huskies are good at is creating negative plays, with a conference-leading 23 sacks and 65 tackles for loss.
The powerful front seven of the Huskies is anchored by Trevardo Williams up front. Williams has racked up 8.5 sacks this season to lead the Big East. There are also a number of playmakers in the linebacking corps with the combination of Yawin Smallwood (13.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks) and Sio Moore (10.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks) wreaking havoc on opposing backfields.
Another loss for Connecticut means any postseason hopes are dashed making every game the rest of the way a must win. Pittsburgh is also playing for its postseason life and will desperately want this win to wash some of the bad taste left from last weekend. In the end the better offensive balance of the Panthers makes them the favorite.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Pittsburgh 23, Connecticut 17
11/07 11:21:25 ET