Pitt, Cincinnati battle for position in Big East championship race

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Three Big East teams control their own destinies in the race for the conference championship and two of them -- Pitt and Cincinnati -- will meet Saturday night at Heinz Field.

That makes the contest something of an elimination game for the Panthers (4-4, 2-1 Big East), because if they lose they will fall two games behind the Bearcats (6-1, 2-0) with only three games to play.

Media covering the Big East picked Pitt to finish second in a preseason poll, but the Bearcats have been one of the surprise teams in the conference and the country.

The Bearcats were picked to finish fifth in the eight-member Big East in the poll and were considered, at best, a borderline bowl team. But they are the only team without a conference loss and they are on a five-game winning streak. Cincinnati is coming off of a bye week, meaning they will have had two weeks to prepare for Pitt.

The main reason for the Bearcats success has been the play of quarterback Zach Collaros, who is making his case for Big East offensive player of the year.

Cincinnati leads the Big East in scoring offense (41 points per game), is third in total offense ( 433.9 ypg). Collaros is third in the conference in total offense (257.3 ypg) and passing yards (225 per game), and he has thrown 14 touchdown passes.

Collaros led the Bearcats to a thrilling come-from-behind win against South Florida, 37-34, in the Bearcats last game and he will be the best quarterback to face the Panthers so far this season.

"Cincinnati will be a tough matchup, they always are," said Pitt safety Jarred Holley after the Panthers 35-20 win against Connecticut last Wednesday. "We have had some battles with them over the past few years."

Pitt seems to have found its stride in defending the pass since a fourth-quarter meltdown against Iowa in week three of the season. The Panthers, however, have not faced a quarterback of Collaros caliber.

Pitt has the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the conference (23.5 ppg) but the Panthers have been plagued by mistakes on offense and special teams which has given opponents good field position, resulting in short scoring drives.

The Panthers didn't turn the ball over against Connecticut and that was instrumental in the ending of a two-game losing streak.

Although the Panthers can't win the Big East title Saturday they can be virtually eliminated with a loss.

Cincinnati can maintain control of the Big East championship with a win and that would likely set up a huge game on Nov. 12 against West Virginia (6-2, 2-1), the other team that controls its own destiny in the championship race.

The Panthers defeated the Bearcats last year, 28-10, in what turned out to be Dave Wannstedt's final game as Pitt's head coach.

Many Panthers players remember the last time these two teams met at Heinz Field, one of the most heartbreaking games in Pitt history. The two teams played with the Big East championship on the line and Pitt stormed out to a 21-point lead only to lose, 45-44, when the Bearcats scored a last-minute touchdown.

"You don't have to remind us about that game," defensive lineman Chas Alecxih said with a smile, "it is one we haven't forgotten."

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


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