Quarterback Advantage: Miami (FL)
The last time we saw Jacory Harris take the field he struggled. In front of over 105,000 fans in Columbus, OH he had a game reminiscent of last year’s meeting with UNC in which he threw four interceptions. Aside from the four picks he completed 22 of his 39 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown pass to tight end Chase Ford. Harris disappointed a lot of fans who expected him to take the next step in his progression as a quarterback. He locked onto his target on a number of pass attempts and failed to find his second or third reads when the first wasn’t available. Additionally, he proved that he still hasn’t fixed his most demoralizing problem which is that he tries to squeeze balls into coverage without putting enough zip on the pass. Harris can’t take all the blame for the four interceptions. On one of them Travis Benjamin did not know what route he was supposed to run and on another he had an easily catchable ball deflect off his body and the hands of Buckeye defensive back Chimdi Chekwa. The one pick that hurt Cane fans the most was the one down in the red zone where he had Damien Berry inside the 5 but didn’t read that defensive end Cameron Heyward dropped back into coverage nor did he put enough behind the ball to hit Berry who was open nonetheless. He’s had a long 12 days after 9/11 to dwell on his mistakes. In those days he has received criticism from an abundance of fans online including some racial slurs from a man under the alias of motown305 on Twitter. His play needs to improve for this team to be successful as we all know how reliant offensive coordinator Mark Whipple likes to be on the passing game.
Pittsburgh starting quarterback Tino Sunseri will be making the third start of his college career for the Panthers. The 21-year-old Pittsburgh native has completed 64.5% of his passes for 459 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. His numbers have been inflated a bit with his last game coming against the FCS’s New Hampshire Wildcats. Sunseri proved to be ineffective in moving this offense against Utah in his first game of the season when the Panthers lost in overtime in Salt Lake City. He will be under heavy pressure from this Miami front 7 who will face a weak Pitt offensive line. The defense will have chances to make plays and force turnovers on Thursday night.
Running Backs Advantage: Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s starting running back is the 5’8” 195 lb. sophomore Dion Lewis. Lewis posted just under 1,800 rushing yards as a freshman last season and as the focal point of this Panther offense. He is playing this season on the Heisman watch list, but has not been effective to start the season with a yards per carry average of under 3. He couldn’t even get going against New Hampshire, but it’s not entirely his fault. The offensive line’s poor play has not allowed him to find holes to run through, and until quarterback Tino Sunseri connects with his tall receivers for some big plays down the field, opposing defenses will continue to stack the line against Lewis. If he gets going against the Canes on Thursday night, the Panthers will continue to give him the ball as he has proven that he can carry the load for them; he had a whopping 47 carries in their game against Cincinnati late last year. Behind Lewis on Pitt’s depth chart is another sophomore in Ray Graham who exploded in the second half of their last game against New Hampshire. He’s a speedy back who can break off some big runs.
The Canes’ primary running back continues to be Damien Berry. He played well against a very tough Ohio State front 7 racking up 94 yards on the 16 carries he received. He’ll get the bulk of the carries with speedster redshirt freshman Lamar Miller and sophomore Mike James spelling him. I would like to see Mark Whipple utilize his running game a bit more, especially in the red zone. The three UM running backs had a total of 22 rush attempts while Jacory Harris threw the ball 39 times. A good remedy for a turnover-prone offense is to simply stick to that running game a bit more, especially when it is a supposed strength of the football team. The Hurricanes were never really in such a desperate situation in the Ohio State game where they should’ve felt they needed to abandon the run until certain points of the second half. Graig Cooper is listed as doubtful for the game against Pittsburgh and is unlikely to play, but Miami has more than enough talent at this position to have some success in the running game. The Canes should rank much higher than 77th in the FBS in rushing yards.
Wide Receivers/ Tight Ends Advantage: Miami (FL)
Miami’s receiving corps is one of the best in the country, but Pitt has one that can certainly rival it. A big difference is how Jacory Harris has developed rapport with all his receiving options while there are countless questions about Tino Sunseri’s ability to get the ball to his guys. Senior Leonard Hankerson is clearly the leader of the group for Miami and Harris’ go-to guy. He was one of the bright spots against Ohio State with 7 catches for 90 yards. Travis Benjamin really struggled on offense in that same game. While Harris connected with him 3 times for 51 yards, he looked lost on a number of plays—running incorrect routes and missing easy catches. You can be sure his coaches have been in his ear about his play and he’ll be more mentally prepared for the game on ESPN. Benjamin’s deep-threat abilities often open up the underneath routes for his teammates, namely Laron Byrd and Aldarius Johnson who are excellent at creating space, getting open, and making catches off intermediate routes. Miami starts sixth-year senior Richard Gordon at tight end, who plays primarily for his blocking abilities, but the 6’6” Chase Ford is the tall target Jacory likes to lob the ball up in the end zone for. Ford scored Miami’s lone offensive touchdown against Ohio State.
Pittsburgh’s receivers are not far behind the ones that call Coral Gables home. Don’t be surprised if you see number 82 in the Pittsburgh uniform putting together a productive night. Junior Jon Baldwin is a 6’5” receiver with 4.4 speed who makes matters so much easier for his young, inexperienced quarterback. He’ll probably be playing on Sundays next year and may end up being one of the top three receivers taken in the draft come April along with Georgia’s A.J. Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones. He’s caught a touchdown in both of his first two games this year to go with his 171 receiving yards. Brandon Harris will have his hands full squaring him up for this matchup. Playing opposite of Baldwin will be another 6’5” target for Sunseri in sophomore (and no, he’s not the head coach of the Redskins) Mike Shanahan.
Offensive Line Advantage: Miami (FL)
There’s a lot of talk around campus about which freshmen will get redshirted this season. The fact that Shannon can redshirt such a great number of freshmen speaks volumes to how much depth he’s built at nearly every position. Two freshmen that will not be redshirted however are probably center Brandon Linder and right tackle Seantrel Henderson, who are expected to really contribute in the near future. The near future may even come Thursday night for Henderson with Joel Figueroa likely out. Redshirt freshman Jermaine Johnson is likely to get the start, but Henderson will surely get into some action. Miami has a hefty group up front. They, however, also had a difficult time in the Horseshoe against the Ohio State front seven in their last game. The Canes O-line needs to cut down on their mistakes and penalties. This group did not do well in handling the noise playing in such a hostile environment committing several false start penalties. On top of that they were getting beat off the line of scrimmage on numerous plays in pass protection which resulted in holding calls that brought back some big plays and put the offense in 2nd and 3rd & long situations. The right side specifically, with guard Harland Gunn and tackle Joel Figueroa, struggled and there was a play where center Tyler Horn got bull-rushed right up the middle as he gave up a sack.
The UM offensive line had a rough outing two Saturdays ago, but they should look better against the Panthers. Pittsburgh’s offensive line has struggled regardless of their opponent so far this year. They’ve been incapable of creating holes for Dion Lewis to run through and have not allowed him to get any momentum going into the line of scrimmage on run plays with him having to break a tackle behind the line. Expect Miami to exploit this weakness throughout the night.
Defensive Line Advantage: Miami (FL)
Miami leads the entire FBS in tackles for loss with 16 over their first two games. Nine of them have been sacks. Allen Bailey hasn’t had a tremendous impact sacks-wise, but he’s still been flying around, fighting off blocks, and making plays; the sacks will come eventually. Olivier Vernon leads the team in sacks and is getting a great jump off the snap count—he’s often times the first one out of his three-point stance. The three middle offensive linemen on the Pitt line are first-year starters and have proven to be inadequate early on this season. Look for Miami’s strong defensive line to come out and exploit this weakness of the Panthers. Marcus Robinson got nicked up in the Ohio State game and is listed as questionable for the Thursday night affair. Defensive tackle Curtis Porter got more than nicked up and may end up missing the entire year because of it. The Canes have an abundance of depth on the D-line and shouldn’t encounter any difficulties in shuffling parts to overcome injuries. We may even see Allen Bailey get more reps inside as the line is slightly thinner there than it is outside.
While posting six sacks against the FCS’ New Hampshire, the Panthers did not post a single sack in their opener at Utah. Missing 2009 co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Greg Romeus will prove to be detrimental to the Panthers’ ability to stop the Canes’ offense on all fronts. The rest of their defensive front has size and plays physical, but will have a much more difficult time making an impact with the absence of Romeus. End Jabaal Sheard is a formidable complementary piece when playing opposite of Romeus, but will end up receiving much more attention without him on the other side. The Miami offensive line will be tested nonetheless against this strong, physical unit for the Pitt Panthers.
Secondary: Miami (FL)
Miami simply has greater athletes and more team speed at linebacker and defensive back. The only thing this team lacks in this area is depth. Also, the ability to hold on to interceptions when they come their way would be nice. The Canes lost the turnover battle 4-0 in the Ohio State game, but it wasn’t all about Jacory’s interceptions. The defense had some golden opportunities to return the favor against Terrelle Pryor and failed to do so. I see the U’s defense picking off Sunseri at least twice during the Thursday nighter.
Pittsburgh is expected to be missing sophomore linebacker Dan Mason. Their secondary, however, is a pretty experienced one. Jacory Harris, with the injuries to Pitt’s front line, is expected to have plenty of time to make his reads and throws in this game, so he shouldn’t be trying to zip balls into tight coverage against this secondary.
Special Teams Advantage: Miami (FL)
Although the usually reliable senior kicker Matt Bosher missed one field goal and had another one blocked two Saturdays ago, the Canes special teams is also what kept them in the game the whole time. Lamar Miller gave the team a spark and a 7-3 lead in the first quarter with the kickoff return he had for a touchdown while Travis Benjamin, on a punt he clearly should’ve fair caught, decided to take it out anyway, splitting two Buckeyes and eventually reaching pay dirt. Expect the same combo to be returning kicks and punts respectively for the U.
The kicking duties for the Panthers will be handled by redshirt senior Dan Hutchins, who is their version of Matt Bosher doing the punting as well. Hutchins has connected on 4 of 6 field goal attempts thus far this season. In the return game, Pittsburgh has been average at best so far.
Coaching Advantage: Even
The big story between Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt and Randy Shannon is all the ties they’ve developed over the years. Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator for the Canes while Shannon played under him. Then, when Shannon reached the NFL he played under Wannstedt once again with the Dallas Cowboys, and has even coached alongside of him when he was head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Wannstedt goes into his sixth season as head coach at Pittsburgh with moderate success in his last two years making it to the Meineke Bowl last year and the Sun Bowl the year before, but failed to reach a bowl game in his first three years at the helm after inheriting a team that won the Big East the year before he took over. We’ll see how effective the post-game tirade of the usually reserve Coach Shannon. Shannon also made the move of banning Twitter from the entire football team as a means of preventing distractions from affecting them on the field.
David Furones may be contacted at email@example.com.