For the first time in nearly 90 years, Stanford and Pittsburgh will meet on the gridiron when the teams face each other in the second-oldest bowl game, the Sun Bowl. Ironically enough, the only other postseason matchup between the Cardinal and Panthers was way back in 1927 in the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of Them All.
As for 2018, Stanford (8-4) burst out of the gates with a 4-0 start and was ranked seventh in both polls. But a 21-point beatdown at Notre Dame in late September led to four losses in the next five games. The Cardinal rebounded wit three straight wins to close the regular season, but for a team that had Pac-12 championship aspirations their bowl assignment has to feel a bit disappointing.
Pittsburgh (7-6) lost three of its first five games, as the Panthers were drubbed by both Penn State and UCF and also fell by three points at North Carolina. Pitt got its act together and rattled off four straight ACC wins at one point to take control of the Coastal Division. Even with a loss at Miami to close out the regular season, the Panthers’ 6-2 conference record resulted in their first Coastal title and a spot in the ACC Championship Game against Clemson. The Tigers drilled Pitt 42-10 but considering the Panthers were picked to finish fifth in their division before the season started, they have plenty to be proud of entering this game.
This is not the first Sun Bowl appearance for either team. Stanford is 3-1, including a 25-23 win over North Carolina in 2016. Pitt has won two of its three Sun Bowls, its most recent trip coming in 2008, a 3-0 loss to Oregon State.
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Stanford (8-4) vs. Pittsburgh (7-6)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas)
Spread: Stanford -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Stanford play its brand of offense?
Prior to this season, David Shaw-coached teams were known for one thing on offense – a punishing, physical running game. However, that has not been the case this season as injuries to 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love and along the offensive line resulted in Stanford finishing second to last in the Pac-12 at 108.3 rushing yards per game. Last year that number was 202.4.
Love won’t play in the Sun Bowl as he shifts his focus to getting ready for the NFL draft, but don’t expect Shaw to abandon the run entirely, especially considering Pittsburgh’s defensive issues in this department. The Panthers are giving up 184.1 rushing yards per game. They have had some success in shutting down teams, including holding Notre Dame to just 80 yards on the ground, but teams like Georgia Tech (320), Clemson (301), and Miami (293) ran roughshod on Pitt.
One bright spot for the Cardinal has been the emergence of junior quarterback K.J. Costello, who has thrown for 3,435 yards and 29 touchdowns. But Stanford will need to show some semblance of a running game or Pitt will have the advantage of defending a one-dimensional Cardinal offense.
2. Can Pitt cut down on the penalties?
The Panthers won seven games and the ACC Coastal Division, but oftentimes didn’t do themselves any favors. They have committed at least eight penalties in five games. Not surprisingly, they lost all five. For the season, Pitt is averaging 7.3 penalties and nearly 70 yards per game, and three of those games resulted in at least 100 yards of self-inflicted damages.
Compare that to Stanford, a team that is usually well disciplined under Shaw. The Cardinal lead the Pac-12 and are in the top 20 nationally with just 5.5 penalties and 42.3 yards per game. In a matchup like this between two fairly matched teams, an advantage in just one area, even when it comes to yellow flags, could be enough to decide the outcome.
3. Who cares about playing in this bowl and winning it?
Motivation to play is typically a factor in the outcome of a bowl game. Some teams struggle all year and just want to end the season instead of playing one more game. Others end up in a bowl that is considered an unwanted consolation prize after losing games in November. However, some teams embrace the chance to play in a particular bowl or in any bowl at all.
Stanford entered the season with Pac-12 title aspirations, which didn’t materialize. This will mark the Cardinal’s third straight bowl game played in Texas and their second Sun Bowl appearance in that span. Will they be excited and fired up to play in El Paso again?
For Pittsburgh, the Panthers didn’t even resemble a bowl team after a rough September. But head coach Pat Narduzzi and company turned things around and won six of their last seven ACC games to win a division title. Pitt comes into this game after getting routed by Miami in the regular-season finale and Clemson in the conference title game so are the Panthers eager to show they are a better team? Or have they already accomplished their goals and will more or less go through the motions against Stanford?
Despite Pitt’s poor showings in its two most recent games, the Panthers accomplished an impressive goal by winning a division title. Stanford has nothing comparable to show for its efforts thus far. Considering how both teams’ regular seasons wrapped up, the Cardinal appear to have momentum on their side and more incentive to put forth a better effort in this game.
Prediction: Stanford 27, Pittsburgh 17
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.