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Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

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Editor's Note: Don't miss out on Joe Nelson's weekly Thursday breakdown this fall on VegasInsider.com. Plus, check out his expert college football selections as well.
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While this week's Thursday college football schedule does not bring us the multi-game slate that the opening week featured, the ESPN matchup this week will be a critical game in the Big East conference race as Pittsburgh visits Cincinnati.

Matchup: Pittsburgh Panthers at Cincinnati Bearcats
Venue: Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio (FieldTurf)
Date: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Time/TV: 8:00 PM ET - ESPN
Line: Cincinnati -4, Over/Under 49
Last Meeting: 2011, Cincinnati (+3½) 26-23 at Pittsburgh

Cincinnati will open the season a week later than most with the opportunity to host Pittsburgh in this primetime matchup, also kicking off the conference season in the Big East. This year the conference race looks like it will be close and both of these teams figure to be in the mix. Last year, West Virginia won a tiebreaker over Cincinnati and Louisville at 5-2 in conference play, while Pittsburgh was a game behind at 4-3. With just eight teams in the conference it is a wide-open race, but there is little margin for error with only a seven-game schedule determining a BCS bowl spot. That will change next year with Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, Houston, UCF, and Memphis scheduled to join the league, while Syracuse and Pittsburgh move out.

Not having played last week allowed Cincinnati to have a much better result than Pittsburgh had last week. In his debut as a head coach, former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst took an opening loss at home against Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) member Youngstown State, 31-17. Now the Penguins have a strong program and opened the year ranked 18th in the initial FCS poll, but it still will linger as an embarrassing defeat for Chryst and a Panthers program in dire need of some stability on the sidelines. The spread was Pitt -18½ where available, so it was not even close to the biggest upset of the week spread-wise, as that belonged to Texas State (+35 ½) beating Houston.

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The game was tied 7-7 after the first quarter and Youngstown State took a 14-7 lead in the second quarter, impressively scoring on long drives on its first two possessions. Pittsburgh's first drive ended in a fumble despite featuring a veteran offense that returned nine starters including senior quarterback Tino Sunseri and senior running back Ray Graham, who was guilty of the turnover. The Pittsburgh offense would get a field goal before halftime to only trail by four at the break but that would be as close as they would get the rest of the night. The yardage in the game was relatively even but Youngstown State had just one penalty and no turnovers, while rushing the ball consistently with 204 yards on 46 carries.

Last season Pittsburgh's defense allowed 351 yards per game, a big leap from the numbers posted in the Dave Wannstedt era, even though the points allowed under now Arizona State head coach Todd Graham last season did not increase substantially. The big difference proved to be passing efficiency as that was an area that Wannstedt teams always excelled in on defense. Last year teams completed almost 61 percent of passes against Pittsburgh and while Youngstown State was below that mark in the opener the Penguins were able to create a few big plays and got three touchdown plays in the air. The defense was supposed to be the question mark for Pittsburgh this year, especially with Chryst being an offense-minded coach. Plus the defense only had a handful of returning starters but the offense has to take much of the blame for this loss.

It takes time for new coach to institute new schemes and there are some dramatic changes this year for Pittsburgh. That comes after dramatic changes under Graham last season. The personnel is there for Pittsburgh to be an effective scoring team but it will take some time and with a big home game looming against Virginia Tech next week, an 0-3 start could be looming if the Panthers fail to show improvement this week. Sunseri has made 13 career starts at quarterback and Ray Graham rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last season. All the top receiving threats for Pittsburgh are back in action this year as well but the offense could not get much going last week.

After going 4-8 in 2010 in his first season at Cincinnati, head coach Butch Davis delivered a 10-3 season last year, going 5-2 in the conference to tie for the Big East lead. This is not an experienced team as only four projected starters on offense started for the Bearcats last season and the big question mark is at quarterback as long-time QB Zach Collaros departs. Junior Munchie Legaux takes over and he did see significant action last season, making 116 attempts and he has started three games while appearing in 11 in his career. A bigger question for the offense is in the backfield as running back Isaiah Pead had a huge year for the Bearcats last season. There are players to fill in with Jameel Poteat and change-of-pace back Ralph David Abernathy likely seeing carries but Pead will be tough to replace.

Cincinnati should have an experienced defense with seven returning starters and this was a unit that improved dramatically last season despite limited experience, going from 28 points per game allowed in 2010 to just over 20 points per game allowed last season. Cincinnati was very effective at stopping the run last season, allowing just 95 rushing yards per game on just 2.7 yards per carry, some of the better marks in the nation. Those statistics are a bit skewed however as two opponents ended up with negative rushing yards in games vs. Cincinnati last season. Cincinnati had 46 sacks last season and they will need big plays from the defense again to come close to last season's record as this was a fortunate team last season finishing +12 in turnovers for the year.

The Bearcats have Delaware State next week and then a bye week so this is the only big game in the first four weeks of the season. It should be an advantage for Pittsburgh to have a game under its belt however and the Panthers have to be motivated for a redeeming performance after the disappointing opening game. This could be another tight game between two teams with hopes of a Big East title.

Last Meeting: Last season in early November Cincinnati won 26-23 in Pittsburgh to move to 3-0 in Big East play at the time. It was a second conference loss for Pittsburgh which effectively bounced the Panthers from the race. Pittsburgh actually led 23-13 in the third quarter last season but Cincinnati would take the lead with 13 points in the span of just over four minutes late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh had to punt on its first three possession of the fourth quarter but then got an interception near midfield. That drive ended up in a failed fourth down attempt on the edge of field goal range. The defense again held and Pittsburgh eventually had a field goal attempt to tie the game, but the 50-yard attempt was not close in the closing seconds. Pittsburgh had more yards in the game and more efficient numbers but Cincinnati came out on top with the kicking game being a big factor with four field goal makes from now sophomore kicker Tony Miliano.

Series History: Pittsburgh has lost straight up in three of the last four meetings but is 4-3 SU and 5-2 against the spread since Cincinnati joined the conference in 2005. Four of the last five meetings have been decided by seven points or less and the favorite is 4-3 in the seven games. The current spread matches the largest spread in this series since 2008 and Cincinnati is just 1-2 SU and ATS hosting this series since the teams became Big East foes. The last time these teams played in Cincinnati it was not a competitive game as Pittsburgh won 28-10 but it was memorable for heavy snow falling and Cincinnati posting just 75 yards in the game.

Pittsburgh Historical Trends: The Panthers have been a strong ATS performer on the road in recent years, mostly under Wannstedt. Since 2006, Pittsburgh is 16-15 SU and 20-10-1 ATS in road games. Last season Pittsburgh was 1-3 SU and 2-2 ATS in those games, covering in two of the three road games in conference. Pittsburgh is on a 10-3-1 ATS run as a road underdog since 2007. After losing narrowly as a very slight underdog early last season at Iowa, Pittsburgh covered in all five remaining games last season playing as an underdog. Pittsburgh is 8-14 SU and 15-6-1 ATS since 2007 when getting points as well as 34-24-1 ATS since 1999 as an underdog. The Panthers have typically not been as strong as a slight underdog however, going just 8-9-1 ATS as underdog of less than seven points since 2004.

Cincinnati Historical Trends: The Bearcats are 53-19 SU and 38-28 ATS at home since 2000, including going 29-8 SU and 19-14 ATS since 2006. Last season Cincinnati went 4-1 SU at home with the lone loss coming by just three points against West Virginia. It looks odd now but Cincinnati was actually a three-point favorite in that game against the eventual Orange Bowl champions as the Mountaineers had just lost to Louisville in the previous game. Cincinnati is 24-5 SU but just 15-14 ATS as a home favorite since 2004 but the Bearcats are 11-7 ATS as home favorites of less than seven since 1995. Cincinnati has only been a home favorite of less than a touchdown twice in the last three seasons, losing outright both times. Cincinnati has not lost its home opener since 2001, putting together ten consecutive SU wins although each of the last six came against FCS competition.

  
HEADLINES
Edwards: Saturday's Tip Sheet
Michigan routs Appalachian State, 52-14
Ohio State pulls away from Navy, 34-17
UCLA wins 28-20 on road, UVA covers
Stanford routs UC Davis 45-0 in opener
Missouri defeats So Dak State, 38-18
Golson, Notre Dame cook Rice 48-17
Nebraska rolls over Florida Atlantic, 55-7
PSU tops UCF 26-24 with last-second FG
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