Pitt focused on Cincinnati secondary
The last time Pitt played at Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium, receiver Derek Kinder had his coming-out party by burning a sophomore cornerback named Mike Mickens for 172 yards, including touchdowns of 80 and 55 yards.
When the 20th-ranked Panthers (7-2, 3-1 Big East Conference) visit No. 19 Cincinnati (8-2, 4-1) at 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Kinder and his fellow receivers will be wary of testing the two-time All-Big East selection and All-America candidate.
"He's definitely gotten a lot better since then," Kinder said of Mickens. "He's one of the top corners in the nation right now."
Mickens teams with cornerback DeAngelo Smith and safeties Brandon Underwood and Aaron Webster to form a Bearcats defensive backfield that takes a backseat to no one. Cincinnati's secondary is a primary concern for the Panthers and their improving passing game.
"It's the most talented secondary, without a doubt, in our conference, and it's got to be one of the most talented in the country," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They've got two corners and a safety that I know will all be in NFL camps. They back it up by their production, with interceptions and passes knocked down."
Mickens leads Cincinnati with 65 tackles and four interceptions and ranks first in the Big East with nine pass breakups and 13 passes defended. Although the Bearcats are seventh in pass defense at 219.4 yards per game, they lead the conference in opponents' third-down conversions (30.6 percent), are second in interceptions (13) and red-zone defense (75.8 percent), third in pass efficiency defense (112.9) and fourth in sacks (20).
"Having those types of DBs in the backfield not only allows us to have one-on-one matchups and blitz quarterbacks more," Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin said, "but a lot of our sacks are coverage sacks."
Mickens and Smith have combined for six interceptions this season and 26 in their careers. They also have 16 pass breakups between them this fall, which will force Pitt quarterback Bill Stull to make sound decisions.
"We've been talking all week about their D-backs," Stull said. "They're definitely a very, very talented defense.
"I just need to be smart. Maybe some throws I think might be there, they might not, and I have to hit a check-down. I have to make sure I don't force anything."
Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh remembers Cincinnati having a young defense two years ago, when it started a handful of sophomores, and believing that it was only a matter of time before the unit clicked.
Now, the Bearcats start 10 seniors and one junior, presenting a problem with their pass rush and coverage skills.
That has Pitt taking a cautious approach.
"Watching the Cincinnati-Louisville game last week, even the commentators labeled them the best secondary in the nation, so we've definitely got a big task at hand," Kinder said. "We've got to be precise on things and be able to push these guys. They've got good speed, and they're real athletic.
"We're definitely going to have to be up for good competition this week."