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Thursday, November 20, 2008
Well-balanced Pitt, Cincinnati fight for first place


Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Why are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the surprise clubhouse leaders in the Big East title chase? In a word: balance.

To this point in the season, the No, 19 Bearcats and No. 20 Panthers have been the most well-rounded teams in the league. They have the fewest warts and the most strengths. That's why they're the only two clubs who still control their own destiny in the Big East.

"When you combine their special teams with their defensive talent and experience and the production they've gotten on offense, you can see why they're the top-rated team right now in our conference," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said of Cincinnati.

"What they bring to the table is great balance in all that they do," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said of Pitt.

Few predicted before the season that Saturday's game at Nippert Stadium (ESPN2, 7:15 p.m. ET) would loom as the Big East's Game of the Year. Maybe we should have.

The Bearcats (8-2, 4-1) are the league's most veteran team, with 13 senior starters. The only real question mark to start the year was at quarterback, and Kelly proved that he can plug just about anybody under center and win. Now he's got a bona fide star in the making at the position in junior Tony Pike.

The Panthers (7-2, 3-1) have a strong core of senior leaders and loads of underclassmen talent, the product of Wannstedt's strong recruiting the past few years. They boast one of the top players in the league and in the country in running back LeSean McCoy. The big question for them was whether they could take the next step as a program and begin to win some of the close games they always fumbled away. They've answered that emphatically.

It's hard to spot many weaknesses on either side, which is why this game should be full of interesting matchups. The one potential mismatch could be Cincinnati's passing game, the best in the Big East, versus Pitt's vulnerable secondary.

"I feel like we have a chance to do some things if we help our quarterback by catching the ball," Bearcats receiver Dominick Goodman said.

While Cincinnati is known mostly for its passing, its running game can hurt you, too. Last week against Louisville in sloppy conditions, tailbacks John Goebel and Jacob Ramsey led the team to a 131-yard rushing day.

"We're running the ball better, and I think we have to continue to do that to get ourselves in some manageable third-down situations," Kelly said. "When the weather turns, it gets a little bit colder, you'd better be able to run the football. I think we're now at a point where we can show that kind of balance and move the football."

Everyone knows Pitt can run, especially Cincinnati. Last year at Heinz Field, McCoy rumbled for 137 yards, and backfield mate LaRod Stephens-Howling added another 100 on the ground as the Panthers scored a 24-17 upset.

Having a healthy Bill Stull at quarterback has allowed Wannstedt to open up the offense this season. Stull is averaging 222 passing yards per game -- about 38 more than Pike -- and the Panthers like for him to chuck it deep to star freshman Jonathan Baldwin and others. The Pitt passing game becomes more dangerous because defenses have to key on McCoy. Cincinnati got burned earlier this year on play-action passes by Connecticut, which handed the Bearcats their only league loss in a 40-16 humbling at East Hartford.

"It's hard to get pressure on a team that runs the ball that well," Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin said. "So it's not easy to get to them. The way that Pittsburgh is different from UConn is they like to throw the ball downfield. That will keep our secondary on its toes."

Both teams also excel in some of the overlooked facets of the game. Cincinnati has an All-American punter in Kevin Huber and the league's best kickoff return man in Mardy Gilyard. Pittsburgh has the Big East's most reliable field-goal kicker in Conor Lee and is among the nation's best in fourth-down conversion percentage and fewest penalties committed. The Panthers have been terrific in their red-zone offense, converting 95 percent of their trips inside the 20 into scores, while the Bearcats are good at repelling teams in the red zone, allowing points only 76 percent of the time.

In a game where any little edge could make the difference, Pittsburgh thanks the schedule maker. The Panthers were idle last week and have been preparing for this game for two weeks. Cincinnati will be playing its fourth straight tough contest without a break.

"I definitely think we have the advantage there," Pitt fullback Conredge Collins said.

You can be sure, though, that adrenaline will carry the Bearcats in their biggest moment in program history, before a sold-out night crowd at Nippert. The ultimate difference will be which of these balanced teams plays the more complete game.

"It's going to be a great challenge," Kelly said. "It's the two best teams right now in the Big East, playing in November for a shot at a BCS bid."