Who has the advantage?
How Pittsburgh and Kentucky match up for Saturday's BBVA Compass Bowl at Birmingham, Ala.:
Pitt sophomore Tino Sunseri was solid in his first year as a starter, throwing for 2,476 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions. While the Panthers rely heavily on the running game, Sunseri is more than capable of stepping up and making big plays. He lit up a good Syracuse defense for four TD passes, and threw for 284 and 272 yards against West Virginia and Notre Dame. UK also has a sophomore quarterback running the offense, but this will be Morgan Newton's first significant action of the season. Newton was more of a game-manager in his eight-game stint as a starter last year, but Coach Joker Phillips said Newton is now ready to handle a heavier workload in the offense. He'll have to be able to complete some downfield passes for the offense to have the same balance it had with Mike Hartline at the helm.
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Pitt sophomore Dion Lewis hasn't had the kind of year he had in 2009 when he won several national freshman of the year awards, but he's still dangerous. He ran for a career-high 261 yards and four touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Cincinnati. The Panthers have another talented sophomore in Ray Graham, who has run for 832 yards and eight TDs as the No. 2 guy. Kentucky senior Derrick Locke will look to have a big game after being banged up for the latter half of the year. He'll be a key safety valve for Newton. The transfer of Donald Russell leaves freshman Raymond Sanders as Locke's primary backup.
Wildcats fans could be seeing Randall Cobb in a UK uniform for the last time. Cobb, a firstteam All-American, is pondering whether to enter the NFL Draft and will be a big point of emphasis for the Pitt defense. Senior Chris Matthews and sophomore La'Rod King head up one of the SEC's better supporting casts. Pitt junior Jon Baldwin will definitely be playing on Sundays. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he will be a matchup nightmare for the UK secondary. Sophomore Mike Shanahan has only one TD catch and isn't a big-play threat, but he's solid enough to make teams pay for double-teaming Baldwin. The Cats will use as many as three tight ends while Mike Cruz (17 catches, 189 yards, two TDs) mans the fort for Pitt.
Pitt doesn't have a lot of individual standouts up front but the Panthers are experienced, starting two seniors and three juniors. Left tackle Jason Pinkston, a two-time All-Big East selection, is the headliner. Kentucky's offensive line did well in the run game but struggled in pass protection during the second half of the season. The Cats will be without starting left tackle Chandler Burden (shoulder). Junior Billy Joe Murphy, who has eight career starts, will take Burden's place.
If Pitt had its full allotment of players it would be scary. End Greg Romeus was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 but has been out most of the year with a knee injury. And end Jabaal Sheard, the 2010 Big East Defensive Player of the Year, has opted for elbow surgery to prepare for the NFL Combine. Still, the Panthers' cupboard is far from bare. Junior end Brandon Lindsey has 10 sacks and earned second-team All-Big East honors. Tackles Chas Alecxih (eight tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and Myles Caragein (4.5 tackles for loss) are both productive. The Kentucky line has struggled at both stopping the run and generating a pass rush. The staff hopes the addition of freshman Mister Cobble at tackle will provide a boost.
While the Panthers don't have the talent at linebacker that they have up front, there's plenty of stability. Junior strong-side linebacker Greg Williams has 31 career starts while junior middle linebacker Max Gruder has 25. Expect double-figure tackles and at least two or three big plays out of junior tackling machine Danny Trevathan, who like Randall Cobb could be playing his last game at Kentucky.
The strength of the Pittsburgh secondary is the safety tandem of Dom DeCicco and Jarred Holley. Both players grabbed five interceptions, with DeCicco earning first-team All-Big East honors and Holley named a second-teamer. The UK secondary had decent numbers most of the season but was exploited big-time by Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray in the regular-season finale. Sophomore cornerback Martavius Neloms looks like a potential big-time player.
Pitt's Dan Hutchins handles both the punt and kick duties and leads the Big East in punt average. The Panthers don't get much out of their return game. UK hasn't been able to break Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke loose on many big returns, but kicker Craig McIntosh has been a pleasant surprise.