Big East battle pits Bearcats against Panthers

The Cincinnati Bearcats jump into the polls this weekend at No. 23, and will try to build late season traction this weekend against the Pittsburgh Panthers in an important Big East clash for both teams.

Cincinnati has won five consecutive games, including last weekend's 37-34 shootout win on the road at South Florida. The Bearcats got a big day out of multi-dimensional quarterback Zach Collaros and a defense that held on in the final stages of the game against the talented and athletic South Florida offense. The Bearcats became bowl eligible with the win, and now face a tough three-game stretch starting this weekend at Pittsburgh. Cincy will host West Virginia next weekend.

Pitt snapped a two-game skid with a 35-20 win over Connecticut last week, but paid a price, as the Panthers lost their sensational running back Ray Graham to a knee injury. With Graham expected to be out the rest of the season, the Panthers are now searching for answers at running back. Pitt still has work to do to make a bowl, needing to win two of its last four conference games in order to qualify.

Collaros was crisp against South Florida, completing 26-of-41 passes, for 383 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions, and also rushed for two touchdowns. Running back Isaiah Pead contributed 79 yards on 22 carries and had a receiving touchdown, while Kembrell Thompkins had a terrific game at receiver, hauling in six catches for 114 yards.

Thompkins leads the team with 4.2 catches and 55.4 receiving yards per game. Collaros has been pretty productive for much of the 2011 campaign, throwing for 1,570 yards and 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. Cincinnati averages 233.8 passing yards per game, which plays a crucial role in the team's ability to strike quickly. The Bearcats average 41 points a game, but still achieve a fair amount of balance between the passing and running attacks. Pead is 28th in the country is rushing, averaging 100.4 yards per game.

The Bearcats defense is led by Derek Wolf, who ranks second in the Big East in sacks (five) and is second in tackles for loss (10), as well J.K. Schaffer, who is fourth in the league in tackles with 54 stops. Schaffer also leads the team with two interceptions. Cincinnati allowed 390 yards and three touchdowns to South Florida's B.J. Daniels a week ago, but surrendered just 99 yards rushing on 35 carries. The Bearcats are second in the country in run defense (72.7), 43rd in total defense (358.4) and 19th in scoring defense (19.0). Cincinnati generates 3.1 sacks and eight tackles for loss per game.

Pittsburgh took a huge blow offensively with the loss of Graham, who had rushed for 958 yards and nine touchdowns before his injury last weekend. Pitt received a huge performance from Tino Sunseri against the Huskies, as the quarterback completed 29-of-42 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns. Pitt will look to running back Zach Brown, as well as a trio of freshman backs in Corey Davis, Malcolm Crockett and Isaac Bennett to fill the void left by Graham in the backfield; Brown has 129 yards and four touchdowns on 41 carries this season. Pitt ranks third in the Big East in rushing (150.2), sixth in passing (215,2) and sixth in scoring (26.5).

"You can't stand up and talk about replacing a player as good as Ray Graham. You cannot replace a player like that, but in the same breath, Zach Brown did a tremendous job in coming in and being productive," said head coach Todd Graham Monday at his weekly press conference. "It will be important for those freshmen to step up and play. People will be surprised at how well these young guys can play."

The Pitt defense ranks fifth in the country is sacks per game (3.3) and 12th in tackles for loss (7.7). The Panthers got after the Huskies last week, holding Connecticut to a modest 316 yards of total offense (including just 114 yards rushing on 37 carries). Pitt is sixth in the Big East in total defense (363.7), giving up 119.8 yards rushing and 243.8 yard passing per game. The unit is led by Aaron Donald, who ranks first in the Big East with seven sacks, as well as linebacker Max Gruder, who is second in the league with 71 tackles. Graham is expecting the Bearcats to challenge is team with a familiar philosophy on Saturday.

"Offensively Cincinnati does a lot more looking back. On offense they come to the line, have a cadence, look back and get the call. We go a little bit faster. Cincinnati wants to run the ball and be balanced in what they're doing so I think they are similar to us there," said Graham.