Panthers vs. Cardinal: Natural Selection at Work?


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett gets tackled during the team’s 42-10 loss to Clemson Saturday night.

By Griffin Floyd, Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Panthers (7-6) will face the Stanford Cardinal (8-4) in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, Dec. 31, at 2 p.m. on CBS.

Being selected for the Sun Bowl is an outstanding achievement for Pat Narduzzi and this year’s Panthers squad — though it is not one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games, it’s the second-oldest bowl game in the United States, after the Rose Bowl.

Both teams have similar backgrounds. While Pitt comes from the ACC, a conference essentially made up of Clemson and everybody else, Stanford is a member of the PAC-12, a top-heavy conference with many middle-of-the-road teams — but no real powerhouses and a lot of cellar-dwelling teams to boot.

There are also a lot of similarities in the makeups and execution. Both teams feature extremely one-sided offenses — where the Panthers excel, Stanford doesn’t — and vice versa. The Panthers are ranked 13 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing offense, whereas the Cardinal is ranked 122 out of 130 teams.

While it has struggled on the ground, the Cardinal has excelled in the passing game. Led by redshirt sophomore quarterback KJ Costello, Stanford has 3,445 passing yards and 29 touchdowns this season. The Cardinal’s passing offense is ranked 13 in the nation and is a far cry from the measly 1,833 passing yards and 12 touchdowns from Pitt’s starter, Kenny Pickett, ranked 89.

Part of Stanford’s offensive struggle is 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love, who is having a disappointing season, to say the least. A year after logging 2,151 combined yards and 19 touchdowns, Love has only 838 combined yards in an injury-marred 2018 campaign.

On the other side of the football, both defenses were ugly to watch at times throughout the season. The Panthers were ranked 69th in the FBS in total defense, just ahead of the Cardinal’s at 78th.

While these much-maligned units have had flashes of greatness at points in the season, such as Pickett’s virtuoso performance on the road against Wake Forest or Stanford’s defense holding No. 17 USC to three points all game, neither team has put together a complete performance.

Stanford has been up and down this season. The Cardinal won its first four games and climbed up to No. 7 in the Associated Press rankings, before losing four of its next five matchups. The Cardinal has since righted its ship with three straight wins to close the regular season.

Similarly, Pitt had an outstanding four-game winning streak — sandwiched by two stretches of brutal mediocrity.

Because the teams are across the country from each other, the only real measuring stick to be had is Notre Dame — both teams played the Fighting Irish on the road. The Cardinal lost 38-17, while the Panthers played them tough, losing 19-14 in South Bend with two missed field goal attempts by Alex Kessman looming large.

Despite the earlier game, the rankings are set in stone at this point. Moral victories from weeks past don’t matter anymore, and although both teams have been in the top 25 for stretches this season, they are unranked heading into the bowl game.

Stanford and Pitt both had difficult schedules, facing several ranked opponents. The Panthers went 1-5 in those games — their lone win coming against the Virginia Cavaliers. The Cardinal went 2-2 against ranked opponents.

Entering the Sun Bowl, the Cardinal is on a three-game winning streak and looks to be on the upswing. The Panthers, on the other hand, have managed just 13 points in their last two games and look stuck in the mud.

Ultimately, the game will come down to Pitt’s rushing offense — as it has all season long.

The Panthers have to get the ground game going, even without star center Jimmy Morrissey, in order to take time off the clock and keep the football out of Costello’s hands. This is crucial, given the performance of Pittsburgh’s secondary this year.

Pitt will also have to score early and continue to apply pressure for the duration of the matchup. If Pitt’s offense has to rely on Pickett’s arm to win the game, as has been the case the past two weeks, it will be a blowout in favor of the Cardinal — and an ugly end to a once-promising season.

Stanford’s defense is a far cry from that of Miami and Clemson. Running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall showed how motivated they were to succeed in their final game at Heinz Field against Virginia Tech, and they will likely have a similar reaction in their final college game.

For a team that started the season 2-3, making a bowl game like the Sun Bowl and having a postseason game of that caliber is a fitting send-off for a talented and hardworking senior class.

It will also bring national focus to Pitt and could impress recruits. Although the Cardinal is the early favorite, with the first odds giving it a point spread of -6.5 and ESPN’s Football Power Index reporting that the Panthers have a 28.2 percent chance to win, the game is far from a gimme for Stanford.

Most importantly, it could mean the start of something special in Oakland.