CINCINNATI OH - DECEMBER 04: Dion Lewis #28 of the Pittsburgh Panthers runs for a touchdown during the Big East Conference game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium on December 4 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. Pittsburgh won 28-10. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Over the next ten days, Big East Coast Bias will take a look at the ten games that we think will be the most vital in crowing the Big East football champion in 2011. It's difficult to narrow the list down to ten, so take the list with a grain of salt, but in looking over the conference's contenders and the schedule for 2011, these are the games we think we will look back upon and see were the most critical in determining the Big East's champion. Up next, our number four game, Cincinnati at Pittsburgh.
December. Nippert. Snow. The field conditions in 2010 were much like 2009 at Heinz Field when Cincinnati rallied from a 31-10 deficit to shock the Panthers in the final minute to win 45-44 (one of the most entertaining Big East games I've ever watched). Like 2009, Pitt jumped out to a double digit lead at halftime. Very much unlike like 2009, there was no Bearcat rally. Pitt added one second half touchdown to their 21-10 halftime lead for a 28-10 win. Pitt running back Dion Lewis went over 40 carries and 250 yards rushing. Lewis scored all four Panther touchdowns. Lewis' big game wasn't exactly a shock, but the Bearcat secondary which had been a major liability in 2010, held Pitt to under 160 yards passing.
Cincinnati did all of their scoring in the second quarter. What killed their chances to win in the game was not poor defense but, as usual, offensive turnovers. On their first possession, Cincinnati drove down to the Pitt 27 before running back Isiah Pead lost a fumble. Pitt took a 7-0 lead on the possession that resulted from recovering the fumble. With the score still 7-0, with the Bearcats deep in Pitt territory again, quarterback Zach Collaros threw his first of three interceptions. The second interception came in the fourth quarter with the score at 21-10. Nothing immediately came of it because Lewis lost a fumble in the Bearcat redzone. After a quick three and out, Pitt scored to put the game away.
The Bearcats will be improved on defense and return almost everyone from last year (though I don't know that all of them will win their jobs). The offense was depressed in output from the Brian Kelly teams that we had grown accustomed to but Cincinnati still led the Big East in scoring. With more familiarity with what Butch Jones wants to do on offense, Cincinnati should be more potent on offense in 2011. I can't imagine they will be as bad as last year with self-inflicted wounds via turnovers either.
Pitt, 2010 Big East co-champs with the rings to prove it, will have an experienced team except for special teams. With the change in head coaches and offensive style from 2010, I don't think special teams will hurt Pitt as much this year as it would have under Wannstedt.
Cincinnati is going to have their hands full trying to slow down Pitt's new uptempo offense. I was going to think that by the time this game would be played in November that Panther running back Ray Graham might be a little worn down. After the addition of Wisconsin running back transfer Zach Brown, Pitt can give Graham some rest over the course of the season. Zach Collaros will be looking to bounce back from a subpar 2010 season and will be the player the Panthers have to force errors from.
I'm really thinking (and hoping) that this game turns out to be a shootout like 2009. Ultimately, while the Bearcats certainly could win, I'm giving Pitt the edge in this game. Cincinnati will be coming into the game rested off an open date and Pitt has a short week. If the teams were playing at Nippert again, I'd give the Bearcats the advantage.