BIRMINGHAM, ALA. (AP) - Pittsburgh players say they will be playing for Dave Wannstedt even though he will be far away when the Panthers face Kentucky on Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Wannstedt resigned Dec. 8 under pressure following a disappointing 7-5 season that included lopsided losses to Miami and rival West Virginia. The forced resignation came less than a year after Wannstedt, the former Chicago Bears coach, signed an extension through 2014.
The announcement of Wannstedt's resignation was only the start to a tumultuous month. Pitt hired Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood on Dec. 16, then fired Haywood less than three weeks later after he was jailed in Indiana on a domestic violence charge.
Wannstedt initially planned to coach the team in the bowl, but changed his mind to avoid being a distraction. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is serving as Pitt's acting head coach for the game as the renewed search for Wannstedt's replacement continues.
"It's in everybody's hearts, we want to win this one for Coach," fullback Henry Hynoski said Friday. "He did so much for us. We also want to win for Coach Bennett."
Bennett said Wannstedt did not want to take attention from the players at the bowl game.
"I'm proud of these players, they've maintained focus," Bennett said. "We all love Dave, they love Dave. But he knew his presence at this game would be a distraction. He said 'Phil, I just don't think it would be fair to the players for me to be the topic of conversation.' And he's right."
Bennett said Wannstedt will watch the game on TV from Naples, Fla.
"He will be like a cat in a closet," Bennett said.
Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has interviewed for the job.
Kentucky also has had problems since finishing its 6-6 regular season.
Quarterback Mike Hartline was suspended for the bowl game following his arrest on charges of public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Sophomore Morgan Newton, who has attempted only seven passes in four games this season, will start for the Wildcats. Newton started eight games as a freshman.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Friday he plans to stick with Newton but said freshman Ryan Mossakowski also could play.
"We'd like to go with Morgan as long as we can and as long as we feel like we're making progress offensively," Phillips said.
Hartline's suspension could lead to an expanded role for junior receiver Randall Cobb, who leads the Southeastern Conference with 79 catches for 955 yards and seven touchdowns. Cobb also takes snap in Kentucky's version of the wildcat attack and could be used more in that role against Pittsburgh.
Cobb, who has submitted his name for the NFL draft, is Kentucky's career leader with 37 touchdowns in 35 games.
"We will use Randall the same ways we've used Randall all year," Phillips said. "He'll return punts, return kicks, we'll hand it to him, we'll snap it to him. We might use him more snapping it to him if Morgan is having problems settling down."
Cobb said he has not allowed his deliberations about the NFL draft to interfere with his practice for Saturday's game.
"You have to prepare yourself like you would any other game," Cobb said. "I can't let my decision affect anything I do on the field. I have to make sure I'm focusing on my task at hand and not think about the future."
Kentucky junior linebacker Danny Trevathan said Friday he's still considering the draft.
"It would be stingy for us to think about our future right now," Trevathan said. "Our decision is going to be a hard one, but I'm sure it will be the right decision."