Pitt senior CB Jovani Chappel
The way Pitt's schedule has played out this season there's been a progression with each opponent more difficult than the previous one, so it's only fitting that the Panthers will face their toughest matchup this week.
No. 14 Pittsburgh (9-2) will have its hands full with No. 5 Cincinnati (11-0) Saturday at noon at Heinz Field. The Bearcats are extremely explosive with quarterback Tony Pike leading the way.
"He's 6-foot-6, and he's got great vision,'' Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "He's more athletic and covers more ground than you might think he does. And like most good quarterbacks, he keeps his vision downfield. ... But I think we have smart players, and they know they're in for a challenge. When somebody tells you something, you might believe half of it.
"But when you see it, you believe it. And our kids have watched a lot of tape. I was watching with Dom (DeCicco) and Jarred Holley, and they know what we're up against. (So), just like against Notre Dame, our margin for error is not very much, and you have to be able to make those plays to get off the field. You have to get off the field without giving up points.''
Pike has completed 65.1 percent of his passes for 2,048 yards (8.1 yards per completion) and 23 touchdowns with just three interceptions. While he was out with a broken left wrist, Zach Collaros completed 75 percent for 1,434 yards (11.6) and 10 scores with just two picks. Collaros also has run for 344 yards (6.1) and four TDs.
While the Panthers have prepared for both, Pike has returned on a full-time basis, will start and play extensively. Pitt struggled containing him last year in Cincinnati's home win, and Bennett knows it won't be easy this year, either.
"One of the things that we've done well this year is keep the ball in front of us (and) not make stupid mistakes,'' Bennett said. "And anything they get, we want to try to make them earn it. You look at Mardy Gilyard and all their receivers, they're multi-dimensional.
"They stretch the field, and the thing that's impressive is their accuracy and their ability to catch the ball. I also think this year that they've improved at running back. ... We just have to start the game strong and prove that we can play with them.''
Gilyard is among the nation's most-explosive wideouts with 75 catches for 1,032 yards (13.8) and 10 touchdowns. Armon Binns and D.J. Woods are the other key receivers with 51 and 40 catches, respectively, for nine and three scores. Isaiah Pead is the top rusher with 682 yards and eight TDs, while Jacob Ramsey has 419 and three scores. Both average more than six yards per run.
"Obviously, they're undefeated, so they've got some good things going on with their offense,'' Chappel said. "But just like it is for us every other week, we welcome the challenge. We're ready for it. They spread it out, and they've got some good players to work with. But we'll be ready for them.
"They use some screens and a lot of different things, different from other teams. They have one of the best playmakers in the country, Mardy Gilyard, and he turns short passes into long gains. So, we have a lot to be prepared for. But we're very focused around here, and we'll be ready to go.''
Cincinnati lost 10 starters on defense, but they had some solid backups and also moved some offensive players over to that side to solidify things on that side of the ball. But they have played well with 14 interceptions, including three each by J.K. Schaffer and Aaron Webster.
"When you see them on film, they lost 10 seniors from last year, so they have one returning senior, Pitt senior tight end Nate Byham said. "But they still have a lot of older guys who actually got a lot of playing time last year. They're very mature guys who give great effort, and they're well coached.
"If you (have that), and you do what your coaches tell you to do you can be successful. So, they've done a great job on defense, but their offense has done a great job helping them out. But you don't go undefeated by not playing great on defense and great on offense. They do both. That's why they're 11-0.''
And it's why this will be Pitt's toughest game this season.