Football: Panthers prepare for BBVA Compass Bowl

By Alex Oltmanns

Before this season started, if someone had said the Pitt football team was awarded a January… Before this season started, if someone had said the Pitt football team was awarded a January Bowl bid one probably would have guessed it was a BCS bowl game.

But things didn’t quite work out as planned for the Panthers, and they are now faced with one last January game Saturday when they play in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Kentucky at noon.

For the Panthers (7-5), who arrived at the Birmingham, Ala., bowl site on Tuesday, the game will provide somewhat of an escape from the whirlwind of off-field issues that currently surround the program.

With the resignation of head coach Dave Wannstedt, the hiring and subsequent firing of his replacement Mike Haywood, and the current search for a new coach, the last month has been one that will not soon be forgotten.

But the Wildcats (6-6) have had their own issues to deal with as well. Starting quarterback Mike Hartline, who was arrested on Dec. 10 on second-degree disorderly conduct and public intoxication charges, is suspended for the game.

Sophomore Morgan Newton will take Hartline’s spot in the starting lineup after starting eight games last season but only attempting seven passes this season.

As for Pitt, it’s no secret that its offense will be led once again by a commitment to the running game with running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham carrying the ball.

“We’re going to run it and they better be ready because we’re going to run,” Pitt interim head coach Phil Bennett said in a press conference Thursday.

When Kentucky has the ball, Newton will try to get the ball into the hands of All-American receiver Randall Cobb who totaled 2,191 all-purpose yards this season.

The Kentucky offense will be facing an injured Pitt defense as well, with starters Jabaal Sheard, Myles Caragein and Antwaun Reed all out for the game with injuries.

Their absence will give some of Pitt’s less heralded but quality backups, such as defensive end Justin Hargrove, defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback K’Waun Williams, a chance to prove themselves on a bowl stage.

“Aaron Donald is a playmaker,” Bennett said. “If you’ve watched him this year, he’s a guy that’s very quick for 290 pounds and he’s got great explosion and he has a sense to make plays.”

This game will also mark the last game for the 12 Pitt seniors, who will look to end their Panther careers on a good note.

“They’ve given a lot to Pitt…They’ve done some great things,” Bennett said. “I look at a guy like [cornerback] Ricky Gary, who has grown so much during my tenure here. Dom DeCicco, he epitomizes a football player.”