Preview | Panthers gear up for clash with high-powered offense in No. 18 UCLA Bruins


Nate Yonamine | Staff Photographer

Fans cheer during Pitt football’s game against Syracuse at Acrisure Stadium on Nov. 5.

By David Scott, Staff Writer

Break out your cowboy boots, because Pitt Football is headed to El Paso, Texas, to take on No. 18 UCLA in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.

The matchup is the first meeting between the Panthers and the Bruins since Sept. 16, 1972, when UCLA defeated Pitt 38-28. Both teams have a losing history playing in bowl games, with Pitt going 14-22 and UCLA going 16-19-1. Both teams have played in the Sun Bowl four times prior to this year.

The Bruins are looking to reach the 10 win threshold with a victory in the Sun Bowl — a total that will match the program’s best ever total. Pitt won four games in a row to end the regular season, and with a victory, the Panthers can secure 20 wins over the past two seasons. Pitt has not won 20 games over the course of two seasons since the 1981 and 1982 campaigns, when Dan Marino was quarterback.

UCLA saw 10 players selected to PFF’s All-Pac-12 team, with senior running back Zach Charbonnet making the first team. Senior wide receiver Jake Bobo and edge rushers Laiatu Latu and Gabriel Murphy make the second team. Charbonnet also made PFF’s All-American second team.

Senior Dorian Thompson-Robinson had a solid year playing quarterback for UCLA. He is a true dual threat, passing for 2,883 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while also rushing for 631 yards with 11 touchdowns. The Pitt defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season, notably in the game against Louisville, and will need to adjust for the rushing threat.

“Their quarterback, I don’t know if you guys have seen him yet, but Dorian Thompson-Robinson is good,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He can run, he can throw, he can do a little bit of everything. I think he’s averaging over five yards a carry. He’s an athlete and I know Chip Kelly will do a lot of different things to keep the ball in his hands.”

Charbonnet had his second 1,000 yard season in a row, rushing for 1,359 yards with 14 touchdowns. He also caught 37 passes for 321 yards. Charbonnet, like Pitt’s junior running back Israel Abanikanda, was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker award.

Latu and Murphy combined for 11 sacks and 67 tackles on the UCLA defense. Latu forced three fumbles on top of his sacks. Despite the hard hitting edge rushers, UCLA is ranked as the No. 84 scoring defense compared to Pitt at No. 41.

The lineup for the Panthers is murky, with the transfer portal opening and players leaving for the draft. Pitt is without Kedon Slovis after he entered the transfer portal on Monday. Nick Patti will likely take the reins for Pitt’s bowl game for the second consecutive year. He started the Peach Bowl last season but left the game after suffering a broken collarbone.

Pitt has not granted Patti the opportunity to start a full season, but when he played, he threw for a total of 558 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in his four years at Pitt.

Regardless of if Abanikanda opts in or out of the bowl game, passing is the highlight of Pitt’s gameplan. UCLA has the No. 120 ranked defense in the nation, allowing 275.7 yards per game to opponents. Their rushing defense is a stark contrast, being ranked No. 30 in the country and only allowing 142.2 yards per game. In comparison, Pitt has the No. 67 ranked pass defense and the No. 7 ranked rushing defense. 

The Bruins rushed for the sixth most yards in the NCAA this year. If Pitt keeps Thompson Robinson in the pocket and forces him to throw the ball and make mistakes, they should match up well.

Narduzzi and the Panthers are excited about the ranked matchup and look to prove their strength against a Power Five opponent.

“Getting a chance to play UCLA, the 18th-ranked team in the country, to be able to go up against such a great football team,” Narduzzi said. “Our team has a great challenge ahead of us and we’re excited.”

The Sun Bowl will air on CBS and kick off at 2 p.m. on Dec. 30.