Cincinnati's offense is explosive, high-scoring and some days, seemingly unstoppable, but the Pitt Panthers must find a way to slow the Bearcats down Saturday when the teams meet at Heinz Field with a trip to a BCS bowl on the line.
Of course, that is much easier said than done as the Bearcats (11-0, 6-0 Big East) have spent most of the season making opposing defenses look silly.
"Man, you watch them on film, and it seems like there are about five open receivers on every play," said Pitt defensive tackle Gus Mustakas. "They are really, really good, and Tony Pike is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. We learned that last year. He doesn't look like he's as fast as he is, but we could not get him on the ground and we had some opportunities.
"That's just one of those things we need to do, sack him when we have the chance, but they don't give up many sacks so this is a tough assignment for us."
Putting pressure on Pike is going to be one of many things the Panthers (9-2, 5-1) are going to have to do to keep the Bearcats offense in check, but the spread offense they run makes it very difficult to get to him because he releases the ball so quickly.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said that Pike's athleticism is very underrated, but his quick release puts pressure on defenders to make tackles on receivers.
"Cincinnati is first [in fewest sacks allowed]," Wannstedt said at his weekly news conference yesterday. "That tells you, one, that they have a good offensive line, but I've always believed that teams that don't give up very many sacks, a lot of that has to do with the quarterback. I think that what they do on offense, it's a high-tempo offense. The ball comes out quickly.
"Now, how do you slow them down? You have to tackle well, for sure. They have great athletes. They are going to make plays. They are going to move the ball. Also, you can't just do one thing. You have to give them a variety of looks on defense, and you have to make them earn it."
The numbers the Bearcats have put up are impressive: They are first in the Big East in scoring (39.4 ppg), total offense (472.7 ypg), passing offense (322 ypg) and sacks allowed (nine).
Pike, despite appearing in only eight of 11 games because of injury, has thrown for 2,048 yards, 23 touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Bearcats have only been held to less than 28 points once -- a 24-21 win against West Virginia -- and have scored 40 or more in five of 11 games.
Wannstedt said the Panthers had a number of chances to sack Pike in a 28-21 loss against Cincinnati last year but missed tackles. That cost them some big plays.
Pike was still somewhat of an unknown last season, but that is not the case now. He obviously has a strong arm, but he is very good at moving around in the pocket as well as making some plays by running.
Wannstedt said watching films of the game last season has been an eye-opening experience for his defensive linemen because they were reminded about Pike's elusiveness.
"Our pressure was good," Wannstedt said. "He made some great plays. Their receivers made some great catches. We busted a couple of things. We busted two coverages, and one led to a touchdown. We had them third down and long once, and he scrambled out and they made a great play down the sideline. Those things happen.
"He makes plays. He's a better athlete than what people probably give him credit for. I know we underestimated him last year. We won't this year. He's back. He's playing extremely well."
NOTES -- Pitt athletic department officials said there are less than 1,800 tickets available for the game. ... The loss to West Virginia means the Panthers are no longer realistically in play for the Gator Bowl if they lose to the Bearcats. The most likely scenario would send Pitt to the PapaJohns.Com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., or the International Bowl in Toronto. ... Starting cornerback Aaron Berry (shoulder) missed the West Virginia game but is expected to return Saturday. "He'll definitely start," Wannstedt said. "He practiced [Sunday]."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com .