A mere seven days remain until the Bowling Green Falcons tangle with the Pittsburgh Panthers in Detroit, Mich. at the 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Of course, it's never too early to begin the hype. To do that, we've paired up with our friends over at Cardiac Hill, the SB Nation home of the Panthers, for a set of questions and answers.
Below are our nine questions and their corresponding answers. Want to know something that we didn't ask? Have a question or a comment about the questions we did ask and the answers we received? Interact with us in the comment section below.
1. Pittsburgh has had an up-and-down season. What do you think are the Panthers' best and worst moments/games of the season, and why do you think the team appears to be so inconsistent from week-to-week?
Lots of bad moments to be sure including some questionable coaching decisions, but worst game had to be Pitt's loss against Navy. The game against North Carolina was bad, too, since Pitt got behind early but then staged a furious comeback only to come up short. But yeah, you just can't lose to Navy.
Best game was the Notre Dame game and the Panthers put together a great effort there. For a top moment, I'll go with Aaron Donald cleaning up in the postseason winning the Outland, Bednarik, Lombardi, and Nagurski Awards as well as being named to just about every All-American team there is.
The inconsistency really speaks to the level of competition. Pitt is a very average team that, for the most part, has beaten the bad teams on their schedule and lost to the better ones.
2. What do you think Pittsburgh's mindset is, going into the bowl game?
Always tough to tell with bowl games - every team has lots of agendas. Some players want to live up the experience, seniors want to showcase their talent or the next level, and others just might not have the holidays on their mind instead of football.
As far as how the Panthers might come out for the game, the fact that Pitt come in as six-point underdogs has to get them a little riled up one would think. The flipside, though, is that Paul Chryst often has not had the team ready in games where you would think they would be. That included last year's bowl game against Ole Miss when they were absolutely manhandled.
Big, big question marks for me.
3. For our readers, what is the Pittsburgh coaching philosophy -- what offense and defense do they typically run? Are the Panthers conservative or aggressive with play-calling, especially in important game situations?
Pitt and Chryst generally like to run but the rushing attack has been so average that they've been forced to the air a lot more. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing with Tyler Boyd and Devin Street piling up nearly 2,000 receiving yards, but the bigger issue has been that a porous offensive live hasn't always given quarterback Tom Savage time to throw.
Pitt will always run when they can, but that's been an issue this season as the trio of James Conner, Isaac Bennett, and Rachid Ibrahim have shown some promise but faltered at times, too.
The Panthers run a 4-3 defense led by Donald, the beast on the line. Unfortunately, there are lots of question marks after him. No one else on the line has really stepped up to produce a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The linebackers have been decent, but a secondary that was supposed to be pretty good in returning three starters took a big step back.
4. Tom Savage has an excellent wideout to throw to in Tyler Boyd. What makes that tandem so good, and are there other receivers that BGSU should be concerned about?
Savage just has a strong arm and can sling it all over the field. A la a guy like Brett Favre, that also means he throws the occasional bad ball and can get picked off from time to time. But his ability throw the ball deep has really played into giving Pitt a legitimate deep passing threat. And Boyd, well, he just catches anything near him.
Also, don't sleep no a guy like Devin Street. Street could actually be the better receiver of the two and while Boyd had more catches for more yards, Street's per catch average was higher and his numbers took a bit of a hit since he missed a couple of games and parts of another one or two with injuries. The question there is if Street will be healthy enough to play - he missed the last game of the year against Miami.
The chemistry between the three has been scary good ... when Savage has time to throw, that is.
5. Isaac Bennett and James Connor appear to be a solid duo at running back. Do they use different running styles or are they similar backs?
They're pretty similar guys - bigger backs that aren't the fastest, but stronger than many others. Pitt also utilized a smaller guy, freshman Rachid Ibrahim this year and while he hasn't done much, he's been used as change of pace guy. He has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and because those guys eat up so many carries, he often comes in with a burst of energy because he might not know when he'll get the chance again.
The stable of backs is decent, but those guys have also struggled when facing better defenses so the Bowling Green matchup is an interesting one. They've had some breakout games, but in contests against Virginia Tech, Florida State, Virginia, Georgia Tech, and Syraucse were held to fewer than 100 combined yards. Just a really up and down unit.
6. Pittsburgh's offense has given up 41 sacks and 85 tackles for loss this year, even though most of the players on the offensive line two-deep are upperclassmen. How much of a concern is the offensive line at this point?
The offensive line has been a huge concern all year. There are a decent number of upperclassmen, but it goes a little beyond that. Both of the returning starters at tackle came back but moved to the inside this season. One of those guys, Cory King, has missed half the season with injury issues and altogether, Pitt doesn't have one returning starter from last year in the same position he was in the previous season.The two main backup tackles didn't play last year - one is a true freshman and the other was suspended. One of the starting tackles, Adam Bisnowaty, had some injury issues and has been playing hurt. Lots of things have contributed to the line being subpar.
Chryst, for what it's worth, has taken the position seriously, recruiting five linemen in last year's class and four more in this year's class. But it will obviously take a couple of years for that group to mature a little.
7. BGSU has faced some pretty good individual defenders this year -- especially Khalil Mack, who is widely expected to be an early 1st round NFL draft pick next April. The awards speak for themselves, but just how good is Aaron Donald? What are his best attributes?
Donald is an absolute freak of nature. A lot of people outside of Pitt hadn't heard of him before this year but he isn't a one-year wonder guy. Two years ago as a sophomore at end, he had 11 sacks. Last year he moved the inside and faced double teams, so his numbers took a hit, but he just kept getting better and better.
He's faced double and even triple teams and just relentless. The biggest thing I can say about him is that you can hold him off and keep him out of plays but eventually he'll make a big one or two. He won just about every major award he could other than the Heisman and is quite possibly the best defensive player in college football, as CBS Sports just named him as theirs. High energy guy that's not very tall but really strong. If Donald doesn't record a sack and a couple of tackles for loss, it will be a surprise.
8. Donald is clearly the star of the Pittsburgh defense, but what other players on that side of the ball should BGSU be concerned about? Which are the Panthers better against, the run or the pass?
The defense, as a whole, hasn't been terrible, but there aren't many standout guys. No one else on the line has stepped up to make many plays, which is surprising considering the number of double teams Donald takes on. The linebackers have been solid with Todd Thomas, Shane Gordon, and Anthony Gonzalez, who has really turned into one of the better players on defense.
A huge issue is the secondary and if you talk to different Pitt fans, some will blame the players and others will blame first-year defensive coordinator Matt House, who has played a pretty conservative scheme all season long, backing his corners off of the receivers. Offenses have had a field day with the secondary for much of the season, taking advantage of soft coverage with shorter to intermediate routes.
One bright spot back there is a guy that was a major weakness early on - safety Ray Vinopal. He was a Michigan transfer that was the lone new starter on the unit and it showed early this year. But he's gotten better each game and isn't only not a liability, but starting to be a strength back there.
9. Finally...the Panthers get to go to a bowl NOT named "BBVA Compass Bowl" this year. Is this a welcome change, and what are Panthers' fans opinions about the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl?
Technically, yes, it's a welcome change. Although playing in the bowl isn't ideal and the hope was that a better game would be available. But hey, when you lose to Navy and need a blocked extra point (by Donald, by the way) against Syracuse to even reach bowl eligibility, beggars can't be choosers.
It's obviously nice to not be going to Birmingham for a fourth straight year, and trust me - I'm sure they're sick of the Panthers, too. But a game in Detroit against a non-BCS opponent the day after Christmas isn't exactly a thrilling option, either. That's to take absolutely nothing away from Bowling Green, who very well could be a better team than Pitt this season - and if nothing else, they've had a better year than the Panthers. But my only point is that no BCS conference team wants to face a minor conference opponent in a bowl.