Sun Bowl Pick: Stanford Cardinal vs. Pittsburgh Panthers Dec 31
Stanford Cardinal (8-4 SU, 7-4-1 ATS) vs. Pittsburgh Panthers (7-6 SU, 7-6 ATS)
Date and Time: Monday, December 31, 2018 at 2PM EST
Where: Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas
Point Spread: STAN -6/PITT +6
Over/Under Total: 52
The Stanford Cardinal take on the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Sun Bowl on December 31 in El Paso. The Pac-12’s Cardinal was 8-4 this season in a year that had its share of ups and downs. They look for a strong finish against the 7-6 Pitt Panthers, a hard-to-read team that won the ACC Coastal Division despite simply not being very good. Both sides had the same amount of time off, last playing on the first of this month. Stanford won their third game in a row to close the season well with a win over Cal on the road. Pittsburgh, on the other side of the coin, lost their second game in a row to close the season with more of a thud, getting annihilated in the ACC title game to Clemson, 42-10. I like Stanford to win this game and cover the spread.
The Complexion of the Season
With a better record this season, Stanford had more success in a deeper Pac-12. They didn’t live up to their 4-0 start, which got them ranked highly. That was followed by a sour patch of games, where they lost 4 of 5. With the season getting a bit sideways, the Cardinal bounced back with three straight wins to end the regular season, the last two coming on the road. With this being away from home, it’s worth mentioning that they’ve had a ton of success on the road this season. They barely lost to Washington and Washington State, the best teams in their division. One of their other losses came to Notre Dame and another division champ in Utah. With wins on the road against Oregon, ASU, UCLA, and Cal, they proved their mettle.
The Cardinal feature a strong passing game led by KJ Costello at quarterback. The preseason Heisman frontrunner Bryce Love never got going and is turning pro, sitting this one out. His lack of fireworks led to a run-game that was awful this season and made their offense one-dimensional. With prospects in the defensive secondary that fell far short of expectations, they couldn’t stop the opponents’ aerial attack. There are things to like on both sides of the ball with the Cardinal, but glaring weaknesses made it, so they ended up in the Sun Bowl and not the Rose Bowl. Still, having not failed to cover a spread since October 27, they had a strong finish and momentum counts for something.
The Panthers were even more erratic. A 2-1 start gave way to 3 losses in their next four games. They went on a run, going 4-0 and getting up in the standings of their division. Any thoughts of ACC supremacy were dashed with a lousy finish to the season, albeit to good teams. Losing by a combined score of 66-13 to Miami and Clemson put them in their place.
On the one hand, they have some quality on their ledger with wins over Georgia Tech, a good Syracuse team, Virginia Tech, and even in a five-point loss to CFP entry Notre Dame. They won their division. That counts for something.
Then again, it’s odd for a team to win a division with a negative point differential. With 26.6 points a game scored, with opponents scoring 28.8 a game, they have been outscored overall on the season. Their defense is hardly anything special, while the idea of an aerial attack is a foreign concept to this Panthers’ offense. And until the last few weeks, they still managed to cover six spreads in a row. It’s a mixed bag of facts to be sure.
Matchup Concerns for Pittsburgh
It would be so nice if Pittsburgh were able to muster some type of aerial offense for this game. Granted, Stanford suffered in a conference where some of the best quarterbacks and wide receivers in the entire country play, so their numbers might be inflated. But they’re simply not very good. Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett has 12 TDs, and only 6 picks on the season with 60 percent completions. His main threat may be big Taysir Mack, a deep threat with nearly 24 yards per catch, so maybe they can create some big plays. The bulk of Pittsburgh’s success this season came on the backs of a pair of 225-pound ball-carriers—Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Both were over 1000 yards rushing on the season. Hall had 14 touchdowns on 7.5 yards per run and Ollison wasn’t far behind.
What hurts the Panthers in this matchup is that the Stanford defense has been holding their own well against the run as of late. Still, there have been times this season when teams with worse run-games than Pittsburgh had success against this Cardinal defense. The Cardinal does have a pass-rush component that could wreak some havoc on Pickett and his line. And if Pickett messes up, playmakers exist like CB Paulson Adebo. For the Cardinal, they can hone in on the Panthers’ run game, while the Pitt defense can focus on the Stanford aerial attack, which looms large. It might come down to which team can make the unexpected happen.
Will the Stanford Aerial Attack Dominate?
To the Panthers’ credit, their pass-defense shined brighter than their run-defense this season. It’s a big secondary, which comes in handy, as many Stanford pass-catchers are of big stature. This season, Costello completed over 66% of this throws with 29 touchdowns. One of the best receivers in the conference started heating up again, with JJ Arcega-Whiteside showing his fangs in the last few games. With Trenton Irwin, Kaden Smith (questionable), and Colby Parkinson filling out a solid rotation of targets, the Panthers’ defense will be under pressure. With a languid pass-rush and a “D” that doesn’t make a ton of plays, the Panthers’ defense will be facing a stiff challenge in this matchup.
Lay the Points on the Cardinal
The Panthers can run the ball very well and have a certain scrappiness to them. I just think that against teams at a certain level, their weaknesses come more into light. Stanford might just be good enough to break into the league of the caliber of teams where Pitt’s run-heavy approach doesn’t quite resonate. Without the “D” or variety to really make it stick, I see the passing-attack and better overall playmaking of Stanford allowing them to get the clear win in El Paso.
Loot’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: I’m betting on the Stanford Cardinal minus 6 points.