LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (6-4, 5-2) At PITTSBURGH PANTHERS (7-3, 5-1)
Game Time: 3:45 p.m.
Location: Heinz Field: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Announcers: John Drickley (Play-by-Play) and Al Groh (Analyst)
Favorite: Pittsburgh by 1.5
All-Time Series: Tied at 8
Last Meeting: Louisville won 45-35 on Oct. 13, 2012 in Pittsburgh
Pat Narduzzi finally took a head coaching job this year and I'm not sure there's a better fit for the blue collar, defensive minded coach. Pitt has been a revolving door for coaches over the last decade but Narduzzi is the first guy that seems to fit the old school feel of Pittsburgh. Pitt is holding on to a chance of making it into the conference championship game. UNC would have to lose twice for that to happen, but we all know that crazy things happen in college football.
Nathan Peterman took over at quarterback for Pitt early in the season, and he hasn't looked back. Peterman is playing about as well as any quarterback in the conference and no team needed better QB play than Pitt. The Panther offense lost it's best player whenJames Conner tore knee ligaments in the first game of the season. When that happened, Pitt needed the passing game to be consistent. Peterman has been exactly that. In conference games, Peterman is completing 66% of his passes and he hasn't thrown an interception. Peterman is also a fairly mobile guy with 323 rushing yards when sacks are taken out. Even though he has taken 20 sacks on the year, his sack rate is just above seven percent. That's the same as Kyle Bolin's and I would honestly compare them when it comes to avoiding the rush. They won't take off and score, but they can run away from pressure and make a play. Peterman might be the single most important player in this game.
Narduzzi is a defensive coach and that means that he loves to run the football. Conner went down and no one really knew where Pitt would go for that feature back but Qadree Ollison has done well to help lessen the blow from Conner's injury. Ollison is a big back at 230 pounds but he can really run when he gets into the open field. He is in no way Conner, but he has been plenty good in his absence. Ollison won't make a lot of guys miss but if UofL's tackling issues rear their head, he will make them pay. Freshmen safety Jordan Whitehead has been playing both ways for the last few weeks and he's a great compliment to Ollison. Whitehead was a really good running back in high school and Jim Chaney decided to give him a shot at adding a new wrinkle to his offense.
The best wide receiver in the ACC and one of the best in the country lines up for Pitt in Tyler Boyd. Boyd is a true "go-go guy" as he's averaging over seven catches a game even though the entire stadium is expecting them to throw his way. Boyd has been targeted on 38% of Pitt's total passes and he's catching nearly 75% of those passes. Chaney lines Boyd up all over the field. He'll be outside on one play. In motion from the slot on the next play. Then he'll be in the backfield on the next. Along with with Whitehead, Pitt has started to utilize Boyd more in the running game as the season has gone on. Jet sweeps, speed sweeps, reverses, wildcat runs, and pretty much anything else you can think of have been used to get the ball to their best player and he's averaging seven yards per carry when running it. His 79 yards rushing last week really stand out as they did a very good job in coverage on him. Chaney has done a great job with getting his best players the ball and Louisville will have to scheme for it.
The other receivers on the team have really stepped their game up as of late. Zach Challingsworth has become a recent favorite of Peterson's and he's made a few really impressive catches over the last few weeks. Dontez Ford is the second leading receiver for the Panthers and he is a big kid. Ford looks more like a tight end but can run pretty well for his size. Pitt receivers have shown a great ability to use their size. One thing I've noticed this year is that UofL has faced some bigger receivers but not many of them really utilized their obvious advantage. I don't think that will be the case Saturday. J.P. Holtz is really the guy to look out for. The tight end is averaging over fifteen yards per catch on the year and he has four touchdowns. He's a redzone threat as well as a really good player down the seams. Keith Kelsey spent a lot more time in coverage last weekend and he struggled. If he's asked to do the same this week, Pitt's options will be a bigger challenge than Virginia's.
The Pitt offensive line has been solid but not great. Dorian Johnson was a very highly rated tackle coming out of high school but Pitt moved him inside to guard. He plays opposite of Alex Officer who was recruited heavily by Clint Hurtt when he was at Louisville. The line really has four players that have played well from what I've watched and a center that can't quite do the things the offense asks of him. Artie Rowell is asked to pull on some run plays and get outside on some screen plays and reverses. Rowell moves well for a 300-pounder but he just can't get out in space fast enough to have the time to break down against smaller guys. By the time he's there, the runner is right on his heels and he's nothing more than an inconvenience instead of being a wall. Rowell isn't a bad player and I think he does just fine as a blocker on traditional plays, but he has definitely made some of the mistakes you see when guys are overwhelmed by the competition they face. That' something to watch for this weekend.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Nathan Peterman, RB Qadree Ollison, WR Tyler Boyd, TE J.P. Holtz, LG Dorian Johnson
Louisville has faced off against two defenses over the last two weeks that haven't done much this season to gain much respect. Pitt is an entirely different beast. It's coached by 2014 Broyles Award nominee Josh Conklin and we all know how good of a coach 2013 winner, Pat Narduzzi is. Pitt doesn't have the guys that fit the system just yet, but good coaches get the most out of what they have and Pitt has done just that.
The defensive front is led by defensive end Ejuan Price (Pronounced "Juan" if you want to sound smart). Price is among the league leaders in tackles for loss and sacks. He's had his best games in some of Pitt's biggest games. If you like comparisons, Elvis Dumervill is a decent one. Price is a short guy that uses leverage better than anyone I've watched this year. He can walk a tackle back into the pocket by getting underneath them or he can use his speed to blow by them. Price doesn't have a bag of pass rushing moves he can reach into but he does understand how to utilize his size very well and it gets results.
Tyrique Jarrett is the best interior linemen for the Panthers. He has 5.5 tackles for loss on the year and he is absolutely massive. Louisville will likely have to double team him if Pitt forces them to run between the tackles. Rori Blair is an interesting player for Pitt, also. He is a lanky guy that plays opposite Price and he's made a good amount of plays over the last two weeks that won't show up in the stat sheet. Blair is also apparently partially deaf after having a stroke. He relies on weakside outside linebacker Mike Caprara to tap him when adjustments are made.
The group of linebackers for the Panthers is very good. Matt Galambos is the middle linebacker and he does just about everything that is asked of him well. He can play the inside and outside runs and he's a good blitzer. He doesn't make a lot of "wow" plays like a Steven Daniels or Jerod Fernandez, but he makes solid plays and gets enough impact plays. Nicholas Grigsby is the player on this defense that will likely have the biggest assignment. Grigsby is used in coverage pretty often and he's plenty athletic enough but he will likely be lining up against UofL's athletic tight ends and slot receivers Saturday. Pitt runs a quarters-man concept that sometimes puts Grigsby against an inside slot receiver and he will have to be able to hang with some really talented players.
Mike Caprara fills the quota for "scrappy undersized guy" that Pitt is required to have. Caprara is the best blitzer for Pitt and he's had a good amount of success in that department this season. UofL has struggled with weakside blitzes from linebackers for two years and I don't really see that changing this game if UofL finds themselves in third and long. They have to account for the backside pressure or Kyle Bolin will be rushed all day.
Pitt is the first team I've watched this year that not only runs man coverage exclusively, but also doesn't use a fifth defensive back. Pitt runs their base defense and makes you beat it. This is the spot where they really don't have the personnel to do what they want but that hasn't stopped them at all. The "Quarters Press" as it has been described is just what it sounds like. The four defensive backs cover a quarter of the field and they press on the corners. Their safeties are typically 7-10 yards off of slot receivers and their is no one deep. If a safety is responsible for a tight end or back that stays in to block, that safety goes into a zone. The corners are on an island and they have to make the play. Plenty of times this year, they haven't made that play and Pit has been burned. Will Fuller of Notre Dame was open for what seemed like 20 catches and 10 touchdowns. Pitt's corners couldn't run with him (No corner in the country can run with Fuller) and Pitt gave up 42 points.
Lafayette Pitts is the top corner for the Panthers and his seven passes defensed is a very respectable number. However, the rate that he is beaten bodes well for Louisville. Pitts is a physical player against the run but he's not a great press corner and from everything I've seen it looks like Pitt's corners are being coached to not bump at the line. That leads to easy releases where the receiver is already even with the corner and as the saying goes "If he's even, he's leavin". Pitts and Avonte Maddox are not bad players by any stretch but sometimes you wonder if they'd be better off putting a safety over top from time to time. The pass rush hasn't had a lot of success getting to the quarterback so the defensive scheme isn't really working the way it's supposed to. At some point you have to think about changing things up. However, after the Notre Dame game Narduzzi made it obvious that he's sticking to his guns.
The safeties for Pitt are a really good combo. Jordan Whitehead is maybe the best freshman in the entire conference and Terrish Webb has been really impressive in coverage as well as against the run. I tend to become enamored with good safeties and Whitehead is the next in line for my adoration. He does just about everything you could ask of a safety. He's slightly undersized at 5-11, 195 but you would never know by the way he attacks ball carriers. Whitehead is second in the conference in solo tackles which is very impressive for a freshman. He will be a player that UofL will definitely have to account for. Webb has missed some time this year but he's a very solid player that does well in short area coverage. Where UofL can exploit Webb is if he has to line up against a guy like James Quick in the slot. Webb doesn't have the speed to keep up with a guy like that and, if the protection can hold up, UofL would do well to look his way.
KEY PLAYERS: DE Ejuan Price, SLB Nicholas Grigsby, MLB Matt Galambos, WLB Mike Caprara, SS Jordan Whitehead
Excitement Level: 8.1
We're back above 8 for the fist time since the Florida State game, and with good reason. Louisville has won four straight and six of their last seven, but a win over a Pitt team that enters Saturday with a realistic shot at winning the ACC's Coastal Division would be the Cards' signature victory to date. It's rare that you get a "measuring stick game" in late November, but that's exactly what Saturday is for U of L.
Pregame Meal: Something, beer
Can't go with breakfast food and beer (the official pregame meal of 2015 Louisville football home games) because there will certainly be some non-breakfast items consumed during the basketball game earlier in the day. What those items are? Well, it's simply too soon to speculate, and I won't do it.
Game Attire: Jeans, black U of L pullover, red Louisville Titleist hat
Riding the hot combination to a fifth straight win. Or at least that's the plan.
Bold Prediction: John Wallace makes three field goals, including one which winds up providing the final margin of victory
People will quote Bobby Petrino from after the Clemson game everywhere on Louisville sports Internet.
Predicted Star of the Game: Brandon Radcliff
The last time I repeated a PSOTG was the only time in the last six weeks that the pick hasn't been golden ... but I enjoy living life on the game day post edge. Again, Radcliff owned the final third of Louisville's 2014 season, and I think he's going to have another monster afternoon today.
Cole Hikutini Touchdown Alert Level: Fern (Not quite as strong as the last two weeks, but a three-peat is certainly possible)
Sometimes the alert level gets wordy. Not a damn thing I can do about it.
--Louisville is 27-2 over the last three seasons when attempting at least 35 rushes in a game. The only two losses came last year at Clemson, and in the 2015 season-opener against Auburn.
--Louisville football is 5-1 under Bobby Petrino when playing on the same day that the men's basketball team plays a game.
--A win over Louisville would give Pitt an 8-win season for the first time since 2009.
--Louisville is 25-30 all-time in games played on the fields of NFL/AFL teams.
--U of L is 2-0 against Pitt under Bobby Petrino.
--Louisville has won 12 consecutive games when kicking off to begin the game, and has lost seven of its last 11 when receiving the opening kickoff, including three of four games this season.
--Pitt WR Tyler Boyd is the ACC's most productive pass catcher this season, leading the conference in receptions per game (7.7) and receiving yards per game (77.8). Boyd is Pitt's all-time leader in both career receptions (232)
and yards (3,135), surpassing such greats as Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Bryant and Devin Street.
--Louisville has won nine consecutive games played in the month of November, the second-longest such streak in program history. A Cardinal victory would tie the program's longest streak of 10, set between 2003-06.
--With 146 yards versus Virginia, junior running back Brandon Radcliff notched his fifth career 100-yard rushing game, which stands 10th all-time in school history. Louisville is 5-0 all-time when Radcliff runs for at least 100 yards.
--Pitt's defense is tied for No. 13 nationally in sacks per game (2.9). Louisville is No. 125 in sacks allowed (3.6 per game).
--Pitt ranks No. 1 in the ACC and No. 14 in the nation in time of possession (33:06 per game)
--Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 196 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
--Louisville is 168-9 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-100 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
--"We're going to play a team that's very good, playing very good football. They have one of the best wide receivers in the country in Tyler Boyd, and they've got great balance between the run and the pass, are very physical and tough on defense." --Bobby Petrino
--"We're not worried about road games anymore. We're worried about home games, and we have to win at Heinz Field here. I feel like we haven't done it in a month-and-a-half." --Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi
--"They're very sound. We know this coach has done a good job coaching defense most of his career. So we'll have our hands full." -Garrick McGee
--"We're just trying to win out, do whatever it takes, practice hard. We practiced hard last week and you see what happened against Duke, we had a really good game. We're just trying to stay focused, practice hard for these last two weeks and get nine wins." --Pittsburgh safety Reggie Mitchell
--"We stuck to our beliefs. I feel like we're playing pretty good right now. It's a good swing, that's for sure." --Bobby Petrino
--"As you watch them, it's a different game plan every week. So you can run all the plays they're going to run, but every week it's a different offense you'll see, so we've got to prepare for a lot of different things." --Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi
--"I think we still have a lot to prove. Our goal is to win out" --Pitt linebacker Mike Caprara
Card Chronicle Prediction: Louisville 23, Pittsburgh 21