Published January 3, 2011 - 4:32pm
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Finally, Bowl Week is here. It seems like it has been an extra long time since Kentucky football fans had something to be excited about but our patience has been rewarded and on Saturday January 8th our beloved Kentucky Wildcats will square off against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the BBVA Compass Bowl at historic Legion Field in Birmingham Alabama. As a result, I am going to kick off the true coverage here at the House of Blue with a breakdown of the bowl game. We have won the toss and decided to take the ball so here is a preview of both offenses and what their role will be come Saturday afternoon.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh has to be the least prepared team playing in a bowl game this year. Over the weekend, newly hired head coach Mike Haywood was fired after being arrested on domestic violence charges. Just earlier today, Dave Wannstedt announced he will not be coaching the game like many thought he would after he announced his plans to resign at the end of the season. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will coach the team in the bowl game and rumors have current Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis on the top of their list. Regardless of the soap opera that is the Pitt head coaching carousel, the Compass Bowl is on Saturday and they will have to score some points if they want to win.
The offense will be lead by sophomore QB Tino Sunseri , who threw for over 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Sunseri had trouble at times to get on the same page as his star WR Jon Baldwin (JR, 810 yards, 5 TD) but the two should be able to work out the kinks and connect on big plays against a suspect Kentucky secondary.
Pittsburgh will anchor their offense the way every other Kentucky opponent has this year and that is by pounding the ball on the ground. Sophomores Dion Lewis (956 yards, 12 td) and Ray Graham (832 yards, 8 td) will offer a 1-2 punch and look to keep the much maligned Kentucky defense on the field for as long as possible.
Kentucky: Everybody that has seen Kentucky play a game over the last three seasons knows one thing for sure; Randall Cobb will be the key to the Kentucky offense. Will it be his receiving, passing or running is the question that will haunt the Pittsburgh defense.
The All-American has accounted for more touchdowns than anybody in the Kentucky history and has a chance to surpass Tim Tebow as the SEC’s all time leader in scores if he returns for his senior year. So, it won’t be a shocker when the Panther defense focuses on Cobb in the Birmingham Bowl. But how Kentucky responds to the attention that Cobb gets is what will make the difference in the outcome of this game. Sophomore QB Morgan Newton will take the snaps for Kentucky in place of suspended senior Mike Hartline (suspended for an alcohol related arrest on December 10th) and how he will perform is a greater question for not only Pittsburgh, but his own team as well. Newton lead the Wildcats to wins at Auburn and Georgia as a freshman, but his performances in those games was suspect at best. Newton struggled in his stint as the starter, due in large part to adapting to the speed and expanded playbook that comes with the SEC competition. Coach Joker Phillips feels as though Newton has made the strides and will be able to hold his own in a game that counts.
The good news for Newton is that he will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Along with the aforementioned Cobb, senior RB Derrick Locke will offer the speed and elusiveness on the ground that should help open up passing lanes for receivers Chris Matthews (SR, 897 yards, 9 td) and La’Rod King (SO, 436 yards, 5 td). The offensive line will also offer Newton the protection he needs to feel confident in the pocket. They only allowed Hartline to be sacked 15 times on the season and lead the way for Locke average over five yards per carry on the season.
I expect Kentucky to ask Newton to do the same thing his predecessor did by simply managing the game. Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders will probably limit the playbook and keep it simple early on to help the offense get in a rhythm. Cobb will take some snaps out of the Wildcat formation and the Cats will look to establish the versatility of Locke as both a runner and a pass catcher with the screen pass. If this works the way Kentucky hopes, it can only improve the mentality of Newton and help him complete passes downfield when he needs too.
Edge: I would love to give the edge to Kentucky, but I don’t think I can. The best case scenario I can come up with is a push. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a great passing attack, but they are more than formidable on the ground and lets be honest, Kentucky struggles against the run. If the Panthers can establish themselves early with the run, it will force Kentucky to try and stop the run and leave the secondary on an island, which they have shown all season usually means success for the opposing team.
It’s also hard give the edge to a team with a quarterback that has 760 yards and 6 touchdowns (3 ints) for his career while the offense has been lead by an all-SEC caliber performer all season long. Kentucky will also want to keep the ball as long as possible to their defense rested properly. But Kentucky does have an ace in the hole in Cobb and that should keep a lot of pressure off the back of Newton.
So, I will call it a push with the advantage going to the team who finds a way to give its defense a rest.