NCF Nation: 2011 compass bowl

Instant analysis of the BBVA Compass Bowl, which Pittsburgh won 27-10 against Kentucky:

How the game was won: Despite the coaching turmoil swirling around the team for the past month, Pittsburgh came out focused and determined to play well in its final game. The Panthers were able to overpower the Kentucky defensive line with their running game, and their defense hung tough every time the Wildcats threatened. Kentucky, which suspended starting quarterback Mike Hartline for this game, was unable to generate many big plays behind sophomore signal caller Morgan Newton. Pitt, missing two key defensive starters and three coaches off its staff, showed plenty of mental and physical toughness in its best nonconference win of the season.

Turning point: Late in the second quarter, Andrew Taglianetti blocked a punt from Kentucky's Ryan Tydlacka that Kolby Gray recovered at the Wildcats' 10. Three plays later, the Panthers scored the game's first touchdown and took a 13-3 lead into halftime.

Player(s) of the game: Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. Playing in probably his final college game -- the draft-eligible sophomore is expected to go pro -- Lewis finished strong with 22 carries for 105 yards and a score. His backfield mate, Graham, had 90 yards on 17 carries.

Stat of the game: Pitt ran for 262 yards on 46 carries while passing for only 96 yards. The 262 yards was the third-highest rushing total by the Panthers this season. Kentucky had only 104 rushing yards on 32 attempts.

Unsung hero: Brandon Lindsey. The defensive end forced a fumble from Newton in the first half, made a fourth-down tackle for loss in the second half and helped Pitt make up for the loss of defensive player of the year Jabaal Sheard.

What it means: The victory brings a little bit of optimism to a program that hasn't had much reason to smile for the past nine days, and sends out the current staff -- especially defensive coordinator/interim head coach Phil Bennett -- on a high note. Pittsburgh (8-5) still has to hire a new head coach, and that will be more important than anything that happened on the field Saturday. But at least the team showed it has talent and potential to do good things with the right coach in place. The Big East, despite losing its top two bowl games, finished a very respectable 4-2 in the postseason and has now beaten an SEC team in Birmingham for the second straight year.
Three keys for Pittsburgh in Saturday's BBVA Compass Bowl against Kentucky:

1. Come together, right now: Maybe that Beatles tune should be playing on the team bus ride to Birmingham's Legion Field. Pitt has been through an extraordinarily odd time the past month. Occasionally, that can help a team rally together -- see Ohio State's performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl after the controversial suspensions of five players. Of course, the Buckeyes were 11-1 and playing in a BCS game; Pitt is coming off a vastly disappointing 7-5 season and playing in a underwhelming bowl in what will likely have a catatonic atmosphere in the stands. But the Panthers need to use the off-the-field problems as an us-against-the-world mentality, because if they play up to their capability they can still win this game. And they can bring some respect back to a program that has suffered a national embarrassment.

2. Point the Compass south: As in, downhill running with Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. (A lame play off the bowl's name, but I bet most of you have no idea what the sponsor company does. It's a bank.). Kentucky couldn't win many big SEC games this year because of its inability to stop the run. Pitt's running game with Dion Lewis and Ray Graham is still its strength, especially as the offensive line improved during the course of the season. The Wildcats are far better against the pass, so the Panthers' game plan should be to try and stuff it down their throats as much as possible.

3. Get pressure on Morgan Newton, but contain him: Newton, a sophomore, will make his first start of the season at quarterback after Kentucky suspended senior Mike Hartline. He played some last year but still should have some rust. That rust could create holes in the Wildcats offense if Pitt can force him to make bad decisions. The bad news is that Big East defensive player of the year Jabaal Sheard and tackle Myles Caragein are out of this game with injuries. So guys like Brandon Lindsey and Chas Alecxih need to have big games. Newton is also more mobile than Hartline, so the Panthers must be sure not to break contain when they rush him. Superstar Randall Cobb will likely be heavily involved in the game plan and figures to line up in the Wildcat formation a lot (though when your mascot is the Wildcats, aren't they all Wildcat formations?). He'll get his yards, but Pitt can still control things by making Newton's day miserable.

Compass Bowl keys for Kentucky

January, 7, 2011
Here are three keys for Kentucky in its BBVA Compass Bowl matchup Saturday against Pittsburgh:

1. Shut down the running game: Pittsburgh and Dion Lewis put up impressive numbers in the running game last season, but it’s been a struggle for much of this season. The Panthers were 5-0 when rushing for 150 yards, so the last thing the Wildcats want to do is allow Pitt to establish itself on the ground and dictate the flow of the game by running the football.

2. Get Newton off to a good start: Look for the Wildcats to put replacement quarterback Morgan Newton in an early position to make some easier throws and generate a little confidence. It’s been a while since he’s been in this situation. So having some success early will probably be even more important. And that confidence thing isn’t confined to just him. His teammates also need a reason to believe in him and rally around him.

3. Get the ball to Cobb: The best thing Newton will have going for him is Randall Cobb, who may see more than a few snaps at quarterback in the Wildcat package. Cobb’s been off for more than a month and is rested, so there’s no such thing as wearing him out at this point. He ought to get 15 touches at a minimum and maybe even 20. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats have several new plays in place to get him the ball. Newton’s probably not going to be as efficient as Hartline throwing the ball, which means Kentucky may have to work harder at making sure Cobb gets his touches.
With all the coaching turmoil surrounding Pittsburgh this past month, it could be easy to forget the Panthers still have a game to play. They'll kick it off in one of the last bowl games of the season Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., vs. Kentucky. A Pitt victory would give the Big East a winning record in the postseason, as the league is currently 3-2. Here's a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Pittsburgh wide receiver Jon Baldwin. It's all but assuredly the junior's final college game before he goes to the NFL, and Pitt's offense usually only excels when he's fully involved in the game. Kentucky is not a great defensive team but does have a decent secondary, as the Wildcats finished No. 20 in pass defense this season. It will also be interesting to see how Baldwin is used after he publicly complained about his role in the offense following Dave Wannstedt's forced resignation last month.

WHAT TO WATCH: How focused and organized the Panthers are. The last month has been incredibly strange, with not one, but two head coaches being dismissed. The players weren't even sure who would coach them in the bowl game until Wannstedt announced Monday he would not be going to Birmingham. The program might have a new coach in place before kickoff. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will be serving as interim head coach, but the staff is missing defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who both went to work for Rutgers. Where the players' heads are is anybody's guess, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Pitt struggle after all this dysfunction. Then again, maybe playing a game will serve as a major relief.

WHY WATCH: If for no other reason than to see the soap opera unfold on national TV. In strictly football terms, there will be a lot of playmakers on the field, like Kentucky's Randall Cobb. But the Wildcats have their own problems, starting with the loss of suspended starting quarterback Mike Hartline. Still, it's a team that nearly beat Auburn this season and upset South Carolina. Every Big East vs. the SEC matchup is worth watching for league respect, and Pitt needs to win a nonconference game against somebody of note this season.

PREDICTION: Kentucky is no juggernaut, especially without its quarterback. But Pitt also will be missing Big East defensive player of the year Jabaal Sheard and starting defensive tackle Myles Caragein because of injuries. Throw in all the off-the-field drama and the Panthers' inability to win big games all year, and I just don't see how they can claim a bowl victory. Make it Kentucky 31-21.
Kentucky is making its fifth straight bowl appearance and faces Pittsburgh on Saturday at noon ET on ESPN.

Here’s a quick preview of the BBVA Compass Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: He’s been one of the most versatile players in the SEC for the last two years, but this could be Randall Cobb’s final game in a Kentucky uniform. He’s yet to make a decision about turning pro and wants to focus solely on bringing the Wildcats a fifth straight winning season. Few players in this league have worn more hats and worn them with the success of Cobb. He leads the SEC with 2,192 all-purpose yards and scored touchdowns this season running, passing, receiving and returning a punt. If that’s not enough, he’s also the holder on extra points and field goals. Whatever he decides about his future, Cobb will go down as one of the finest players to ever play at Kentucky.

WHAT TO WATCH: With senior quarterback Mike Hartline suspended for this game, sophomore Morgan Newton gets his shot to lead the team without playing any meaningful snaps this season. When everybody was healthy, the Wildcats had one of the most balanced offenses in the league. But senior running back Derrick Locke went down with an injury, and Hartline was able to take the passing game to another level. The offensive playmakers are in place to put up more big numbers in this game. In addition to Cobb, senior Chris Matthews had a big season with nine touchdown catches. It comes down to how effective Newton is throwing the ball and running the offense after watching from the sideline all season.

WHY TO WATCH: The Hartline suspension certainly raised some eyebrows in and around the Kentucky program, but it was nothing compared to the turmoil Pittsburgh has faced. Dave Wannstedt was forced out as head coach and was replaced by former Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, who was fired 16 days later after being arrested on domestic violence charges. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will coach the Panthers in the bowl game. We’ll find out on Saturday which team is more resilient.

PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 30, Kentucky 24. Had Hartline not been suspended, the Wildcats would be the team to beat in this game. But Newton has thrown just seven passes all year long and will no doubt have to get accustomed to game speed. He’s had more than a month to get ready. Pitt will take advantage of his lack of game action, though, and force him into some game-changing mistakes.
Pittsburgh's Brandon Lindsey led the Big East in tackles for loss and finished second in sacks, providing excellent production at defensive end once Greg Romeus got hurt.

But Lindsey knows that his job was made easier by the play of fellow defensive end Jabaal Sheard. The Big East Defensive Player of the Year commanded double teams and constant extra attention, often freeing up Lindsey to make plays.

In Saturday's BBVA Compass Bowl, Lindsey won't have Sheard on the other side, since the senior underwent surgery. Starting tackle Myles Caragein is out, too. So this time, Lindsey will be the player that Kentucky will focus on stopping.

"I know I have to take a more active role," he said. "I have to get everybody ready on the line and there will be a lot more attention on me. I'll have to flip and play both sides and not get frustrated when they're chipping and double-teaming me."

At 250 pounds, Lindsey was better rushing the passer than stopping the run. Now he'll be going against a team with SEC size, a trio of good running backs and the electric Randall Cobb. Lindsey said he expects Kentucky to use Cobb in the Wildcat more than it normally does with starting quarterback Mike Hartline suspended.

"They're definitely a lot bigger than we are," he said. "We have to be technically sound and fill our gaps. And we have to know where Cobb is at on the field at all times."

Lindsey said things have "changed 180 degrees" since spring camp, when he was trying to find playing time as a backup defensive end. At the end of his junior year, he finds himself as the playmaking veteran of the defensive line. He'll have to play like a star for Pitt to have a chance.