THE MATCHUP: PITT (7-6) VS STANFORD (8-4)
WHEN: 2:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: SUN BOWL STADIUM, EL PASO, TX
HOW TO WATCH: CBS
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
Many bowl games are being labeled as “meaningless” in modern college football, but the 2018 Hyundai Sun Bowl is far from that for the Pitt Panthers.
A win over the Stanford Cardinals would give Pat Narduzzi his first bowl victory as Pitt’s head coach, a step fans would like to see him take sooner rather than later. A victory would also give the Panthers eight wins against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Having won the ACC Coastal division this year, the arrow would once again be pointing upwards for the program following a rough 2017 campaign.
Conversely, if the Panthers were to fall to Stanford and end the season on a three-game losing streak, the luster of that Coastal division title may fade a bit, and the loss to two-win North Carolina – along with multiple blowout losses – will stick in the forefront of minds when reflecting on 2018.
In either event, the matchup against eight-win Stanford will strongly influence the optics surrounding this year.
Under 8th-year head coach David Shaw, Stanford isn’t quite the Pac-12 powerhouse it has been in recent seasons. The Cardinal opened 2018 at #13 in both the AP and Coaches polls, but they currently sit outside of the top-25. They own victories over Arizona State, California, Oregon and USC, and their losses have all come to teams currently ranked in the AP top-20: Notre Dame, Utah, Washington and Washington State. Yes, they may be falling short of expectations, but finishing with nine wins could catapult Stanford back into the top-25 and greatly improve the optics surrounding their season, as well.
The Cardinal have relied on their 19th-ranked passing attack in 2018. Heading into the season, many expected Stanford to field a run-heavy offense, especially with the return of 2017 Heisman trophy runner-up, running back Bryce Love. However, an injury-riddled senior year for Love has forced him to miss multiple games and drastically limited his contributions when playing. Averaging 108.3 yards-per-game on the ground, Stanford ranks a lowly 122nd in run offense, and their 29.6 points-per-game sits at 60th in the nation.
With Love injured, quarterback K.J. Costello has emerged as the focal point of Stanford’s offense. The 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pound junior earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors after completing 263-of-396 passes for 3,435 yards and 29 touchdowns. The former 4-star recruit has thrown 11 interceptions on the year, though, showing that he does not always take care of the ball. And with a net total of -1 rushing yards, Costello is not regarded as a dual-threat quarterback.
Costello’s top target is senior J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection whose 14 touchdown receptions are tied for 3rd in the FBS. Combining a 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound frame with body control and strong hands, it has been difficult for defensive backs to stop Arcega-Whiteside this year, particularly in the redzone. His play in 2018 is thrusting Arcega-Whiteside up draft boards, and CBSSports.com lists him as the 34th-overall prospect in the 2019 NFL draft.
Arcega-Whiteside’s status as Costello’s top target will be amplified, too, since Stanford’s 2nd-leading receiver, Trenton Irwin, will miss his final collegiate game after sustaining an injury against California. In Irwin’s absence, the team’s duo of pass-catching tight ends may also factor into the game plan more than usual, even though they are already focal points of the team’s success. 6-foot-7-inch, 240-pound Colby Parkinson has 476 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns, while the 6-foot-5-inch Kaden Smith, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, has 47 receptions for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. CBSSports.com currently rates Smith as the 3rd-best draft-eligible tight end for the 2019 NFL draft.
At running back, the Cardinal will be without Bryce Love after the senior announced earlier this month that he will skip the Sun Bowl in order to rehab his ankle injury and prepare for the 2019 NFL draft. As such, Stanford will rely upon senior Cameron Scarlett and junior Trevor Speights as its primary ball carriers. Both players have seen significant playing time throughout the season, but neither has emerged as the next Christian McCaffrey or Bryce Love (or even approached their predecessors’ success, for that matter). Together, they combine for 116 carries, 457 yards and 7 touchdowns, with Scarlett contributing 6 out of the 7 touchdowns.
Making the task of replacing Love even more difficult for Scarlett and Speights is the fact that Stanford’s offensive line will be without its two top performers, too: left tackle Walker Little (first-team All-Pac-12) and guard Nate Herbig (second-team All-Pac-12). Little, a former five-star recruit and emerging star, is out due to injury, while Herbig will not play after declaring for the draft.
Stanford’s 3-4 defense isn’t living up to the lofty standards established in recent seasons, either. They rank 79th in total defense (415.6 yards allowed per-game), with their 121st pass defense serving as the unit’s Achilles’ heel. Their run defense has been respectable, though, ranking 41st nationally at 140.9 yards-per-game. They also sack the quarterback 2.83 times per-game, tying them for 21st in that category.
Stanford’s three-man front is anchored by 6-foot-2-inch, 293-pound nose tackle Michael Williams. At his sides are Jovan Swann – who ranks second on the team in sacks (4.5) and tackles-for-loss (7.0) – and the giant Dalyn Wade-Perry (6-feet-4-inches, 316 pounds). Wade-Perry will be filling in for Dylan Jackson, who was injured against California.
Behind the line, Casey Toohill and Joey Alfieri start at the outside linebacker spots. Alfieri has been one of Stanford’s top defensive players when on the field, but an injury sustained in week-six has limited him down the stretch. Some of the defense’s top contributions have come from rotational outside backers Gabe Reid and Jordan Fox, too; Reid leads Stanford in sacks (5.5), while Fox leads the team in tackles-for-loss (8.5).
On the inside, senior linebackers Bobby Okereke and Sean Barton are first and second on the team in tackles, respectively. Together, they combine for 175 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries and 1 interception. The duo will be instrumental in limiting Pitt’s running back tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall.
Lastly, the secondary is headlined by redshirt-freshman cornerback Paulson Adebo, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after registering 60 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 interceptions and 20 pass breakups. He pairs with redshirt-senior Alijah Holder at cornerback, while Malik Antoine and Frank Buncom IV occupy the safety positions.
|Points Per Game||26.6||28.9||29.6||23.8|
|Yards Gained Rushing||3344||2724||1537||2037|
|Yards Lost Rushing||361||331||237||346|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.6||4.9||3.7||3.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||229.5||184.1||108.3||140.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||142.2||217.3||287.1||274.7|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.9||5.9||6.3||5.7|
|Average Yards Per Game||371.7||401.4||395.4||415.6|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||26-634||25-515||31-678||5-166|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||17-124||28-218||21-241||11-42|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||9-148||6-98||11-113||11-190|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||24.4||20.6||21.9||33.2|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||7.3||7.8||11.5||3.8|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||16.4||16.3||10.3||17.3|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||17-10||22-9||9-4||15-7|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||95-903||64-526||66-507||76-756|
|Average Per Game||69.5||40.5||42.3||63.0|
|PUNTS – YARDS||68-2832||57-2357||59-2594||54-2226|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||37.6||37.8||39.9||35.3|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:29||27:31||30:24||29:36|
|4th Down Percentage||47%||52%||67%||55%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||29-202||31-226||34-232||21-121|
The Sun Bowl will mark the third ever meeting between these two teams, with the Panthers leading the all-time series, 2-1. Stanford enters the game as 5-point favorites to even the series on New Year’s Eve. The game kicks off at 2:00 P.M. on CBS, and local radio listeners can tune in to 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.