Pitt must contend with strong Cincinnati offense

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Cincinnati, like Pitt, was one of the favorites to finish at or near the top of the Big East standings this year.

But the Bearcats' season began to unwind from the opening week as they lost, 28-14, at Fresno State and ended up dropping three of their first four games.

Cincinnati, the two-time defending Big East champion, never got on track, stumbling to a 4-7 record, and will not be going to a bowl game for the first time since the 2005 season.

The reasons for the Bearcats' failures are many: a coaching change, youth on defense, too many turnovers and mistakes on special teams. But one thing they have done well is pass the ball.

Cincinnati's passing game has been the best in the Big East by a large margin, and Pitt's ability to handle that attack Saturday at Nippert Stadium likely will tell the story of the game.

Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt said with what Cincinnati is capable of doing in the passing game it is easy to understand how it is the highest scoring offense in the conference despite a 2-4 league record.

The problem, he said, has been turnovers. The Bearcats' turnover margin is minus-13, worst in the league.

"But this is by far the most explosive offense that we will face. The quarterback is playing at a very high level and they have a very good offensive line, and when you look at the numbers their running back, Isaiah Pead, puts up and then their receivers -- that is where their experience is. It is at the skill positions and they are scoring points."

Cincinnati is first in scoring offense (28.6 points per game), first in total offense (431 yards per game), first in passing offense (274.5 ypg) and fourth in rushing offense (156.7 ypg). Quarterback Zach Collaros leads the conference in passing yards (279.3 ypg), total offense (294.8 ypg), touchdown passes (25) and is second in pass efficiency (141.5).

The Bearcats also feature two of the top three receivers in the conference in Armon Binns (6.5 receptions per game, 10 touchdowns) and DJ Woods (5.1 rpg and eight TDs), and Pead is the third-leading rusher with a 93.2 yards per game average and a league-high 6.8 yards per carry.

Wannstedt said Binns -- who scored the winning touchdown against Pitt last year -- Woods and third receiver Marcus Barnett are the difference makers on the offense because they create matchup problems.

"I remember seeing Binns this summer at the Big East media day and thinking he is one of those guys who plays a lot bigger than what he is physically," Wannstedt said. "He has caught almost twice as many passes than the other guys, and Woods is very dangerous in the slot. If you try to take those two away they have no problem trying to throw to Barnett, who is a senior and experienced player.

"They have a lot of options and they force you to defend the whole field."

And that has been a problem for the Panthers of late.

Cornerbacks Ricky Gary and Antwuan Reed have struggled the past three games, and the result has been big plays, like the back-breaking 71-yard pass from Geno Smith to Tavon Austin in West Virginia's 35-10 win Friday in the Backyard Brawl.

Safety Dom DeCicco said the Panthers better solve their issues in the secondary in a hurry or they will be in for a long afternoon Saturday.

"They just have so many weapons all over the field and it puts pressure on you every play," DeCicco said. "They literally are a threat to score on every play from any spot on the field. We've had some breakdowns and we have to get it right. We can't miss tackles and we better know our assignments.

"They didn't score 69 points a few weeks ago against Rutgers by accident. They can make you look silly in a hurry if you aren't careful. We have our hands full."

NOTES -- Senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard is one of six players nominated as a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year award. Earlier this week, Sheard was named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). ... Returner Cam Saddler (back) is still listed as day to day.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720


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