Bearcats defense locks down Pitt

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett CINCINNATI -- Most people think of Brian Kelly's spread offense when they think of Cincinnati. It's the defense that has the Bearcats on top of the Big East.

On Saturday night, that defense held the league's top scoring team, Pittsburgh, to its lowest point total in conference play during a 28-21 victory. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Panthers had just 106 total yards and only seven points. A long touchdown pass against a busted coverage in the final 90 seconds prevented Pitt from posting its lowest score of the year. After a 69-yard touchdown drive on its first possession, the Panthers had just 37 until the fourth quarter began.

The Bearcats did it without one of their best defensive players. All-Big East cornerback Mike Mickens missed the game with a left knee strain. Just like they did when their quarterbacks went down this season on offense, the defense just kept going.

"It was just next man in," corner DeAngelo Smith said. "Brandon Underwood stepped in and did the job. Mike was cheering us on from the sidelines."

Two weeks ago, Cincinnati held West Virginia to under 100 yards rushing as a team for the first time in seven years. On Saturday, star running back LeSean McCoy managed only 82 yards.

This defense has speed and strength on the front line and outstanding cover skills in the secondary. Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull could only connect with deep threat Jonathan Baldwin once for 22 yards, and Baldwin had to make a terrific move to come back for the ball on that fourth quarter play. Stull was intercepted once and sacked seven times.

"The key for us was to keep McCoy under wraps and then be able to play some coverage situations," Kelly said. "We got Stull to move his feet, and that's so important, because when he can set his feet he can rip the ball down the field. And they've got great receivers who can go down and get it."

Defensive end Connor Barwin had three of his team's sacks on the night, giving him 10 on the season. That's not bad considering that he was a tight end until this spring.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Barwin said.

With 10 starting seniors, the Bearcats defense has plenty of knowledge and experience. And right now, it's why Cincinnati is on track to win the Big East.