BC - Pittsburgh Preview
This week's game with the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field will mark the beginning of a critical three game stretch for the BC Eagles. At 4-2, the Eagles have their sights set on a fourth consecutive bowl invite and a third place finish in the Big East Conference. This week's game will be critical to both team's bowl prospects. Each team comes into the game with two losses overall, but the Panthers are 2-0 in Big East play while the Eagles are 0-2. A BC would loss would all but guarantee that the Panthers will finish the season ahead of the Eagles in the Big East standings. The Eagles will limp into Pittsburgh coming off a 46-21 win over Navy this past weekend while the Panthers took advantage of a bye week following their 14-6 loss to Notre Dame on October 12th. Here is how this week's game stacks up:
When BC passes
Brian St. Pierre will face a solid defensive secondary that ranks 11th in the nation in fewest passing yards allowed. The Panthers have talent and experience at cornerback with Senior Torrie Cox (48 tackles, 10 passes broken up) and Junior Shawntae Spencer (3 interceptions, 9 passes broken up). At safety, Redshirt Freshman Tez Morris, a big hitter who is second on the team with 55 tackles, joins Sophomore Tyrone Gilliard. Though the Pitt pass rush has created problems for opposing quarterbacks, the defense has registered just 13 sacks through seven games. The Panthers exceptional run stopping ability has aided the secondary by regularly forcing the opposing team into 3rd and long situations.
Brian St. Pierre must recapture his 2001 form for the Eagles to be successful over the next three weeks. The BC Senior has played well against weak opponents (9 TD's, 2 INT's vs. UConn/CMU/Navy) but has struggled against Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech (1 TD, 7 INT's). Pittsburgh's secondary, though not at the level of a Miami or Virginia Tech, has been excellent and will take advantage of St. Pierre if he continues his recent tendency of throwing into heavy coverage. The Eagles need to play smart and take advantage of the short passing game more than they have early in the season.
When BC runs
Derrick Knight and the BC running backs will face an excellent run defense on Saturday. The Panthers rank 17th in the country, surrendering only 101 yards per game on the ground, an average of only 3.0 yards per carry. Any discussion of the Pittsburgh defense must start and end with Gerald Hayes. The Senior middle linebacker seems to be everywhere on the field. Hayes, who made 104 tackles last season, already has 68 (40 solo) this season. Nine of those tackles have been for lost yardage. Hayes has also chipped in with 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Joining Hayes in Pitt's outstanding linebacking unit are Junior Lewis Moore (48 tackles) and Senior Brian Beinecke (31 tackles). The strength of the Pittsburgh defense is at linebacker, but the defensive line has been excellent as well. The front four is highlighted by Junior defensive end Claude Harriott, who has 35 tackles (7 for lost yardage), 2.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and 8 QB hurries. Pitt's other bookend, Senior Brian Guzek leads the Panthers with 3 sacks. Sophomore defensive tackles Jim Crochunis and Dan Stephens have combined for 70 tackles this season.
This will certainly be an interesting matchup. BC's offensive line, as usual, will have a huge size advantage over its opponent. However, the benefits of this size will become apparent only if the Eagles can control the ball for long drives early in the game, something they failed to do against Virginia Tech and in the second half against Miami. The Eagle ground game will also need to contend with a Pitt secondary that loves to help out on the run, particularly safety Tez Morris. Though the Eagles have run the ball well this season, they have not punished the opposition the way they did with William Green a year ago. Yards will be hard to come by this week.
When Pitt passes
When the Panthers lost superstar wide receivers Antonio Bryant and A.J. English and starting quarterback David Priestly after last season, many thought that their passing game would suffer dramatically, but that certainly hasn't been the case. Priestly's backup, Junior Rod Rutherford, has stepped right into the starting role with great success in 2002. Rutherford has completed only 53% of his passes but he has thrown for 1,664 yards and 11 touchdowns (along with 8 INT's). More impressive has been the play of the wide receivers. Senior Lamar Slade and Freshman Larry Fitzgerald have combined for 62 catches, 922 yards and 7 touchdowns so far this season. Tight end Kris Wilson has also hauled in nine passes for 245 yards (an amazing 27 yard average for a tight end). Pittsburgh's offensive line is very experienced, returning all five starters from last season. The best among this group are 6'6" 330 pound Sophomore left tackle Rob Petitti and 6'3" 295 pound Senior center Chad Reed. Despite the experience, Pitt has surrendered 26 sacks in 2002, 5th worst in the nation.
This could be a decent matchup for the Eagles if they can put pressure on Rutherford. He made some very bad passes against Notre Dame when the Irish were able to force him to throw early. Given time, Rutherford and his talented receivers can pick apart a defense. The Eagle secondary has played very well this season, but the pressure on that unit will be much greater without the services of Garay and Goodwin.
When Pitt runs
The Pitt running game has left a lot to be desired in 2002. The Panthers are averaging a meager 2.9 yards per carry and are averaging 125 yards per game in the ground. Most of the carries this year have gone to Junior Brandon Miree, who has collected 322 yards and 2 touchdowns. Pitt will also go to Junior fullback Lousaka Polite (176 yards, 4.5 yards per carry) and Sophomore Raymond Kirkley (161 yards, 3.4 ypc). Kirkley, who gained 645 yards last season, has seen his role diminish this season with the emergence of Miree.
Had this game been played three weeks ago, I would have said that BC would have no problem handling Pitt's mediocre ground game. Unfortunately, the Eagle run defense is a far different animal without the services of Garay and Goodwin. The Eagles have surrendered a grotesque 714 yards on the ground over the past two games after giving up only 441 in four games with Garay and Goodwin. Pitt's running game has been mediocre at best but BC's defensive line has been a sieve over the last six quarters. This matchup will be weakness against weakness and the Eagles need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage if they are to have any chance to win the game. This means that Sophomores Tim Bulman and Phil Mettling will need to play like experienced veterans, as they face the unenviable task of replacing Garay and Goodwin.
Advantage: Who Knows
Pittsburgh's biggest weapon on special teams has been kickoff return man Torrie Cox. Cox's 26.9 yard average is currently 10th in the nation. By contrast, Pitt's punt return average is among the worst in the nation as Freshman Billy Gaines has averaged only 5.0 yards per return. Pittsburgh also possesses an outstanding punter in Junior Andy Lee, who has been added to the Ray Guy watch list. Lee's average per punt has increased to 44.2 yards this season, good enough for eighth best in the country. After a shaky start, Pitt's kicking game has been solid. Panther Freshman kicker David Abdul has converted on each of his last five attempts (7/12 overall).
Both teams are dangerous on kickoff returns, but the Eagles clearly have the advantage on punt returns with Jamal Burke, who is currently 15th in the nation in yards per return. Kevin McMyler is not punting up to his 2001 standards so far. Sandro Sciortino is 10-for-15 in field goals this season, but his missed his last two from inside 40 yards. BC has improved dramatically on kick coverage as opponents are averaging just 16.4 yards per kick return and 4.0 yards per punt return in 2002. The Eagles will undoubtedly need some big plays from the special teams to win on Saturday.
Advantage: Boston College
I hate to beat on a dead horse, but the Eagles are a completely different team without Doug Goodwin and Antonio Garay, possibly their two best players. The Eagles had the depth to make up for the loss of Peter Shean, but I'm fairly certain that they can not come close to replacing Garay and Goodwin. The trickle-down effect of the extra rushing yardage and loss of pass rush capabilities could have disasterous consequences on a BC secondary that has played very well. The Eagles will give up yards, but will look to force turnovers and buckle down in the red zone. On the other side of the ball, BC is very healthy but they have failed to play up to their potential. Pitt's defense has been spectacular, but they have also benefitted from playing some poor offensive teams. As Gerald Hayes goes, so goes the Pitt defense, which means that the Eagle offense must put a helmet ... or two ... on the relentless middle linebacker on every play.
On paper, this looks like a big win for the Panthers, but Notre Dame proved two weeks ago that a team can be lose most of the battles but win the war if they force turnovers at key junctures. Notre Dame forced three turnovers and won despite Pitt's dominance. I think the Eagle offense will perform much better than the experts think, but the injuries on defense will prove too much to overcome.
Final Score: Pittsburgh 24 Boston College 17