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Louisville Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Panthers Preview and Prediction

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Offense vs. defense. The classic match-up. And even if Louisville is the 64th-ranked offense and Pittsburgh is the 25th-ranked defense (which isn't bad) in the country, that's not important.

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For when the Cardinals play the Panthers Saturday, the billing for the football game is more about the coaches than the players.

Bobby Petrino is controversial, condescending and, if you're an Atlanta Falcons fan, cowardly. This season he continued to drive the masses up a wall by refusing to name a starting quarterback before kickoff of Louisville's opener against Auburn and the Cardinals lost their first three games.

But ask rival coaches and they'll say he is likely the toughest offensive mastermind in college football to prepare for, which helps explain why Louisville has won six of its last seven games and has scored 41 and 38 points in its last two games.

Meanwhile at Pitt, in his first season as head coach Pat Narduzzi has continued the mastery of defense he displayed as Michigan State's defensive coordinator despite not having any true stars. Yes, the Panthers are not limiting opponents to 100 total yards any more, and against Notre Dame Narduzzi made the dreadful decision to cover wide receiver Will Fuller man-on-man, but  they also held Duke to their lowest point total in four weeks in a 31-13 victory last week

The game is a must-win for Pitt (7-3), in that it can still win the ACC Coastal Division with a victory against the Cardinals (6-4) and then in its season finale against Miami if North Carolina loses its final two games at Virginia Tech and NC State.

Unlikely, but not impossible.

But ultimately both teams need a victory to go to a higher profile bowl.

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Louisville at Pittsburgh 

Kickoff: 3:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPN News

Spread: Pitt -2

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Three Things To Watch

1. Is Pitt's defense really back?

One can't discount the fact Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk was not playing last week. The Blue Devils only rushed the ball with their running backs 10 times, and backup Parker Broehme was less than accurate against the Panthers.

Louisville is also starting something of a backup quarterback. Kyle Bolin is the third different starter for Petrino but took over as the starter after Lamar Jackson's ankle injury three games ago. Bolin has since thrown for 362 yards against Syracuse and guided the offense to five touchdowns last week.

The key, therefore, to stopping Louisville this week will be to provide a pass rush. Pitt is one of the most prolific teams in the ACC in collecting sacks; Louisville gives them up at an even higher rate.

2. How secure is Bolin behind center, really?

Despite the point total, Bolin completed less than half of his 21 passes and had only 139 yards last week. The Cardinals beat Virginia 38-31 thanks to running back Brandon Radcliff's 146 yards and two touchdowns and former quarterback Reggie Bonnafon's halfback option touchdown pass.

This shows just how dangerous Louisville can be. While Pitt is most comfortable running behind Qadree Ollison, the Cardinals have and will find multiple ways to score.

So if Bolin continues to struggle against the Panthers, Jackson could easily return behind center.

Of course, both quarterbacks are somewhat prone to interceptions...

3. The best player on the field is likely Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd. How will he be used?

Boyd has caught nearly three times the amount of passes the next most prolific Panthers' receiver, Dontez Ford, has. Yet his yards per catch average is half that of Ford's.

Granted, it's likely the more catches a receiver has, the more he will catch shorter passes that will bring down his average. Yet one wonders if Boyd barely averaging 10 yards a catch is due to short routes or double teaming.

As such, Narduzzi has found all sorts of ways to get Boyd the ball, including rushing and returning. Last week against Duke, Boyd had eight carries against only three catches.

The dirty little secret is that while Pitt's defense has received more ink than Louisville's, the Cardinals are actually ranked higher (14th), primarily because of their ability to stop the run with ACC defensive linemen of the week Devonte Fields.

But there's a big difference between thwarting the fullback dive and being able to guard against a reverse with a receiver that has a run-pass option. Boyd's performance will likely determine the outcome of the game.

Final analysis

A lot to like on both teams. And a lot to be worried about as well. What isn't deniable is Louisville has been hotter lately.

Prediction: Louisville 24, Pitt 21

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.