The Matchup: Ole Miss (6-6) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
When: Saturday, January 5th
Where: Birmingham, AL
Game Time: 1:00 PM ET
What you need to know about Pittsburgh: The current Big East Panthers and soon to be ACC members had an underwhelming season under new head coach Paul Chryst. Right out of the gate, the Panthers were donkey stomped by Youngstown State 31-17 and Cincinnati 34-10. It’s an average team at best, but they nearly upset Notre Dame in overtime if not for a missed field goal.
Pitt finished 4th in the Big East in scoring offense at 27.4 points per game and fourth in total offense averaging 400 yards per game. Quarterback Tino Sunseri finished with 3,103 yards and 19 touchdowns on the season, compared to just two interceptions. He’s not a big-time quarterback, but he does do a great job limiting turnovers. The Panthers feature a running back duo of Ray Graham and freshman Rushel Shell. Graham rushed for 1,077 yards and 11 touchdowns returning from an ACL injury suffered last season, and Shell rushed for 562 yards and four touchdowns. Pitt finished 5th in rushing offense in the Big East.
Pitt features a receiving duo of Devin Street and tight end Mike Shanahan as well. Street leads the team in receptions with 66 for 892 yards and four touchdowns, but Shanahan is Sunseri’s safety valve. Shanahan has caught 58 passes for 926 yards and five touchdowns.
Pitt finished the regular season as the #3 scoring defense and #3 total defense in the Big East. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald had a monster year, leading the team with 18.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He’s a force inside that Ole Miss will have to contend with. The Panthers finished as the Big East’s third best rushing defense, only allowing 129.08 yards per game. Ole Miss’ specialty on offense is the up-tempo running game, and it will present problems for Pitt just like it has every team this season.
What you need to know about Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze inherited a 2-10 roster that had lost its last 16 SEC games, and he turned them into a 6-6 bowl team that could have easily been a nine-win team. Think back to close losses against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. The Rebels lost all three of those games by a combined 13 points.
Quarterback Bo Wallace leads the fast-paced Rebels’ offense. Wallace had an up and down season altogether, but he did throw for 2,843 yards and 19 touchdowns – but his 15 interceptions were costly at times. Wallace also was the second leading rusher with 363 yards and eight touchdowns. Running back Jeff Scott led the rushing attack with 828 yards and six touchdowns, and he’s the perfect speed back for Freeze’s spread system.
However, the best player on the team is wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Moncrief, just a sophomore, is truly a big-play receiver. He caught 60 passes for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 15.8 yards per catch. He can stretch the defense with his speed, and he uses incredible body control to catch every pass thrown his direction. Moncrief will test the Pitt secondary.
Ole Miss has a young defense overall led by freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, who led the team with 78 total tackles and 12 tackles for loss and was tied for the team lead with three sacks. This group doesn’t make many sacks, but they are a physically sound and tough tackling defense, a new mindset Freeze instilled in this group. It’s not an overly talented bunch on the Rebels’ defense, but they have toughness and heart. Ole Miss finished 11th in scoring defense after finishing dead last in ‘11.
Who has the edge? Both teams match up pretty well with each other, and each team has momentum heading into the bowl game. Pitt held their last two opponents – Rutgers and South Florida – to a total of nine points. The Panthers outscored the Scarlet Knights and Bulls 54-9. Ole Miss, on the other hand, bashed Mississippi State 41-24 in the Egg Bowl.
However, the one thing that sets apart these two teams is Pitt’s +12 turnover margin, compared to Ole Miss’ -1. The Panthers have protected the football well on offense all season, and they don’t hand many freebies to opponents’ defenses.
Ole Miss will look to run as many plays as possible against the Pitt defense. Pitt’s opponents ran an average of 66 plays per game, and Ole Miss will look to stretch that to around 75 to 78. Ole Miss’ hurry-up offense and the speed of Scott and Moncrief will be a difficult matchup for Pitt’s defense, too.
Photo Credit: Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE