Steel City Showdown: Louisville vs. Pitt

Pittsburgh

After finishing their 2015 home slate with a 38-31 win over Virginia, Louisville has now won six of their last seven games. Now, the Cardinals will start a two-game road trip to close the regular season with a visit to the Steel City, facing a 7-3 Pitt Panthers team with bowl implications.

Last Time

Louisville traveled to Pitt on October 13, 2012. The 18th-ranked Cardinals trailed 21-17 at halftime, but Teddy Bridgewater threw a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play in the second half to give the Cards the lead, and they never looked back. With a solid performance by Bridgewater (17/26, 304 yds, 1 TD), DeVante Parker (4 rec., 153 yards, TD) and four touchdowns from Senorise Perry, the Cardinals beat the Panthers 45-35 to improve to 6-0.

The Cardinals and Panthers are tied 8-8 in the series.

This Time

TE Cole Hikutini. Photo: GoCards.com
TE Cole Hikutini. Photo: GoCards.com

Now winners of six of their last seven games, the Cardinals gained bowl eligibility for a sixth straight season with a 38-31 win over Virginia. Brandon Radcliff had a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns, while tight end Cole Hikutini and receiver Jaylen Smith added touchdown receptions.

Pitt enters this game 7-3, rebounding from two straight losses with a dominant 31-13 win over Duke. Quarterback Nathan Peterman had three touchdown passes, while Qadree Ollison added 111 yards and a touchdown.

About Pitt

As mentioned, the Pittsburgh Panthers are 7-3 under first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi. You may remember Narduzzi as the former Michigan State defensive coordinator, and one of the names mentioned to replace Charlie Strong before Bobby Petrino returned to Louisville. He had a lot of success in East Lansing, and is having a hell of a first year in Pittsburgh.

RB Tyler Boyd. Photo: post-gazette.com
WR Tyler Boyd. Photo: post-gazette.com

Watching the Panthers on film, they don’t blow you away with style points, but they are one of the most impressive teams this year. Analyzing the Panthers starts and ends with wide receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the best at his position in the country. He’ll likely be a mid-to-late first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft for two reasons: (1) he is a fantastic route-runner, and (2) he has a strong work-ethic to catching the football. Pitt will use him in a lot of different ways and do so often, whether it’s split out at wide receiver, on special teams, or even in the running game. He is by far their leading receiver with 69 receptions for 700 yards (their next leading receiver, Dontez Ford, has 21 catches for 421 yards).

RB Qadree Ollison (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)
RB Qadree Ollison (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

Although they lost star running back James Conner for the season, Qadree Ollison has been a solid replacement for him, netting 859 yards rushing and nine touchdowns (both top five in the ACC). In Pitt’s pro-style offense, expect Ollison to get a lot of carries, and at 230 pounds, he is a tough hombre to tackle. Nathan Peterman has been one of the better quarterbacks in the ACC this season, and has not thrown an interception in conference play.

The Panthers are 25th in total defense, and under Narduzzi’s watch, have been generally solid. Linebacker Nicholas Grigsby, defensive end Ejuan Price and nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett are a formidable trio in what is a stout front seven for the Panthers. Jordan Whitehead is another player to watch at safety, as he’s won ACC Freshman of the Week multiple times and he even takes snaps at running back. Price is a small, but solid pass rusher who leads the team in sacks (6.5), while Jarrett serves as a stout run-stopper and Grigsby is a jack-of-all-trades type of linebacker, with solid tackling and decent coverage skills. Pitt’s linebacker group, in general, is very stout and will pose challenges for Louisville’s offense.

For Louisville

Now winners of six of their last seven games, the Cardinals have clinched bowl eligibility for a sixth straight season. Although the passing game struggled to get going, the Cardinals continued to run the ball extremely well with a season-high 266 yards in the 38-31 win over the Cavaliers. Brandon Radcliff had another stellar game with 146 yards and two touchdowns, and six different players had a carry for at least ten yards. Cole Hikutini and Jaylen Smith also added touchdown catches, the former who had an amazing hurdle to give Louisville a big first down.

But as good as the offense looked last week, the defense was hard to watch at times. There were a lot of blown assignments and missed tackles, which led to Virginia moving the ball effectively, especially with Canaan Severin or Taquan Mizzell. But, Louisville’s defense continued to pile up sacks, and special teams forced a massive turnover to give the Cardinals another possession that led to a go-ahead touchdown. Linebacker Devonte Fields was also named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week with one sack and 3 TFL in the win.

How Louisville Wins This Game

  1. Avoid mental mistakes on defense. This seems like a general point to make, but Louisville’s defense had a lot of trouble with discipline last week. Whether it was missed tackles or critical penalties, the Cavaliers found a way to move the ball effectively with their playmakers. If much the same happens on Saturday against Pitt, Louisville’s defense could again be in trouble. Ollison and Boyd are stud football players that can make the Cardinals pay for missing tackles or assignments. It’s also important for the defense to not break down and allow Peterman to run for a first down, if he gets the chance.
  2. Have success throwing the football. If Pitt’s defense is beatable anywhere, it’s through a strong vertical passing game. In Pitt’s three losses, they gave up 258 to Iowa, 270 to North Carolina, and 262 to Notre Dame (while allowing seven touchdown passes to just one interception). It’s important for Louisville’s offensive line to protect Bolin and give him chances to hit throws down the field, especially with targeting some of the bigger receivers like Jaylen Smith or Cole Hikutini.
  3. Defensive line must fluster Peterman. Pitt’s offensive line hasn’t been bad by any stretch, but they haven’t been the best either. Once again, the Louisville front seven has to come up big and stop a Pitt team that will run the ball often. If Louisville can get stops and force Pitt into passing down situations, it could allow them to pressure Peterman and generate turnovers.

Interesting Stat of the Week

Photo: GoCards.com
Photo: GoCards.com

Devonte Fields won ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week, making it the third time a Louisville player has won the award this season. Trevon Young won the award twice for his performances in the Boston College and Wake Forest games, and this is the seventh time this season a Louisville player has won a conference award.

Prediction

This may very well be Louisville’s toughest opponent in the second half of the season. Pitt is a very tough, disciplined team and it’s going to be as close as Vegas indicates. Therefore, it’s important that Louisville’s defense avoids a lot of the mental mistakes that they showed last week. But it’s fair to say that both teams will come prepared, especially with Pitt facing a Louisville team continuing to play solid football in the second half of their schedule.

Although I do expect Boyd and Ollison to make plays, this is a game where the Louisville front seven has to play up to their potential. Bolin may have some trouble if Price and the linebacker corps of Pitt can get pressure, but he can win outside against a defense that plays a lot of man coverage. I would not expect Louisville to hit another 200-yard rushing game this week, but it would be very beneficial if they continue to run the ball effectively to help Bolin.

Overall, this is going to be a very competitive game for both teams. In the final two weeks where Louisville is going to travel to Pittsburgh & Lexington, Pitt is the perfect litmus test to gauge how much the Cardinals have really improved since the Florida State game. More importantly, this game is big for bowl implications, and where the Cardinals will end up going.

Louisville defeats Pitt, 24-20.

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