The Hoos enter the ACC part of their season at 2-1, coming off an easy home win over the I-AA VMI Keydets. With a win over a solid BYU squad and a blowout loss to a very good Oregon squad, there are still a ton of question marks about this team. Is the defense is good as they looked against BYU? (Maybe.) Is the offense as good as it looked last week against an overmatched VMI team? (No.) Can the special teams improvements last all season? (Hopefully.)
This is the game that fans have been pointing to for the past few months. The win over BYU was impressive, but in reality this is the game that was going to define the season. If the Hoos can manage a win in the ACC opener, on the road, against a solid Pitt team, a bowl game seems awfully likely. To most fans, that will define a successful season. However, a loss here, and the season could begin to spiral away. The schedule only gets harder from here on out.
The Panthers come into the game at 2-1 (1-1 ACC). They got walloped by FSU in their opener, then beat a pretty bad New Mexico team at home before winning a crazy 58-55 game over Duke last week. Pittsburgh twice led that game by more than 20 points, including 51-28, before hanging on for the 3 point win. Needing a first down to ice the game, Pitt was able to complete a 15 yard pass on 3rd and 7 with just over 2 minutes remaining. Many teams would've played it safe and run the ball there to keep the clock moving. Kudos to head coach Paul Chryst and Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph for trusting their QB and playing aggressive. The fact that Pitt seemed unable to stop the Blue Devils likely played a role in the decision.
TB: #34 Isaac Bennett - 5'11" 205 lb, Junior; #40 James Connor - 6'2" 230 lb, Freshman
LT: #69 Adam Bisnowaty - 6'6" 300 lb, RS Freshman; #70 Juantez Hollins - 6'5" 330 lb, Senior
LG: #78 Cory King - 6'6" 325 lb, Senior; #76 Ryan Sclieper - 6'5" 310 lb, Senior
C: #57 Artie Rowell - 6'2" 305 lb, Sophomore; #71 Gabe Roberts - 6'5" 305 lb, RS Freshman
RG: #74 Matt Rotheram - 6'6" 340 lb, Junior; #64 Shane Johnson - 6'5" 330 lb, Junior
RT: #68 T.J. Clemmings - 6'6" 305 lb, Junior; #53 Dorian Johnson - 6'5" 290 lb, Freshman
A true freshman at Rutgers in 2009, Tom Savage was named to the Freshman All-American team. The following year, he was sidelined with a hand injury, and lost his starting job. He then announced he would transfer to Arizona. Unfortunately for him, Arizona then hired, whose spread option offense did not suit Savage's pocket passing skills, so he then transferred to Pitt. As a result, prior to this season, Savage had not played in a game since November of 2010.
Savage was a big-time recruit coming out of the Philadelphia area. He was a top 10 QB, and was recruited by the likes of Miami, Florida St, Georgia, etc, along with Virginia. Rutgers, at the time, was coached by Greg Schiano, now in the NFL. Savage is a big guy, with a big arm, and he can even run a little bit. Not enough to be a read-option type of QB, but enough to pick up some yards as a scrambler. Savage has the ability to really pick apart a defense if given time to throw. The Hoos will need to get pressure and force him into uncomfortable situations. He threw for 424 yards and 6 TDs last week.
The Panthers run an offense similar to the Hoos. It is a pro-style offense that relies on being able to run the ball successfully between the tackles. Pass plays are often play-action, especially on early downs. They run the ball more than they throw it, and have had 1000 yard rushers for 5 of the past 6 years. It helps when you have future NFL backs such as, Dion Lewis and toting the ball. Despite the big passing game from Savage last week, the Panthers still ran the ball more than they threw it. Accounting for sacks, Pitt called 44 runs and 35 passes. Obviously, in a game that they led, they were going to be running the ball rather than throwing. But their opening drive was a 12 play TD drive that included 9 rushes (47 yards) and 3 passes (38 yards on 2 completions). Their second drive consisted of 4 runs (26 yards) and 2 passes (10 yards on 1 completion) before culminating in a blocked FG.
While Bennett is the starter, the top two backs have been splitting carries. Conner was recruited by most schools as a DE, but Pitt was willing to give him a shot at RB and he's stuck there. As you'd expect from a DE prospect, he's a big guy. He does run well, but Bennett is easily the faster of the two backs. Despite having two quality backs, Pitt still misses Rushel Shell, who was a top 5 RB recruit last year and rushed for over 600 yards last season as Pitt's second RB. Shell transferred to WVU. Neither Bennett nor Conner has the burst that Shell has. They don't have his hands and feel for the passing game either. Conner had a big game last week with 26 carries for 173 yards. Prior to that, Bennett had received a majority of the touches, although Conner had been more effective. Bennett is still listed as the starter, although I suspect we'll see more of Connor. Our LBs and DBs will have a tough job bringing Conner down, he's a tough runner and will run through arm tackles.
One guy who has tremendous speed is freshman WR Tyler Boyd. Body was a top recruit who is a bit undersized but can make plays. He's a WR, but they use him in a variety of ways, including lined up in the backfield. He's already had 5 rushes for 93 yards, including a 33 yard TD. He also has 16 catches for 314 yards. He will also return kicks. The only other Pitt WR of any consequence is senior Devin Street (17 catches for 387 yards). Street was a sprinter in HS and obviously has outstanding speed. He's tall and lanky, but has great ball skills. He had 73 receptions last year for 975 yards and 5 TDs. The two of them have combined for fully 2/3 of the team's receptions on the season. Covering those two will be crucial in stopping the Pitt offense.
Pitt has two starting TEs on the depth chart, but neither of them has been very active in the passing game. They are both used interchangeably and in different ways. They'll line up as H-backs, traditional TEs, traditional FBs, or split out. They'll use a jumbo package where both TEs are lined up on the OL. Not surprisingly, they'll use these looks on short yardage plays, but they'll use them in other situations where they send both of their WRs deep with max protect and try to let Savage find somebody open. The UVA DBs may have to hold their coverage for a while in those situations. That said, the UVA DL is better than Duke and better than UNM. So Savage may not have as much time as he's used to. FSU sacked Savage 3 times, although 2 of those were on CB blitzes. They did have 7 QB hurries, although once again many of those came on blitzes. There is, of course, no reason to think that Jon Tenuta will not call a lot of blitzes.
Pitt's OL is big, averaging 315 pounds. But they aren't very experienced. The two guards are the only returning starters. Clemmings actually moved over from DE after last season. Dorian Johnson was one of the top OL recruits in the nation last year, and will see time at RT. He'll probably be starting over Clemmings before the end of this season. Tenuta may not have to blitz much if Eli Harold, Brent Urban, and Co. can get pressure on their own. Harold, in particular, could give Clemmings fits.
The Pitt offense wasn't great last year, finishing 71st in the nation. One thing they didn't do is turn it over. They were the best team in the nation in not turning the ball over, with just 10 turnovers in 13 games. Tino Sunseri, last year's QB, threw just 3 INTs all year. Much of that offense is gone, however. Savage has thrown 4 picks already this year. He's thrown 9 TDs, which includes the 6 he threw this past week.
Last year, the strength of the Pitt Panthers was clearly the defense. They ranked 17th in the nation, and was equally good against the run (17th) and the pass (20th). This year has, thus far, been a completely different story. Right now, Pitt ranks 102th in total defense, 94th in rushing defense and 83th in passing defense. They are 122nd in the nation in passing efficiency defense, out of 123 teams. They have given up an average of 41 points per game.
I think it's fair to say that, right now, this defense isn't playing very well. Which is a good thing, since the Virginia offense isn't very good. The Hoos currently rank 87th in total offense, 52nd in rushing offense and 104th passing offense (111th in passing efficiency).
While the numbers aren't good, Pitt still has a lot of talent on the roster from last year's defense. They returned last year's leading tackler (Hendricks), who once again leads the team in tackles. They also return last year's leader in sacks (Donald), who once again leads the team in sacks and TFLs. In fact, of the defenders who started in Pitt's Compass Bowl loss to Ole Miss, only 3 are gone.
One of the big differences has been turnovers. Last year, Pitt forced 22 turnovers. This year, they've produced just 5 through 3 games and 4 of those came last week. And despite Duke's 4 turnovers, they amassed 532 yards and 55 points in a losing effort.
Duke did all that damage with their second string QB. (The starter, Anthony Boone, is out with a broken collarbone.) Their QB now, Brandon Connette, is similar to Watford. He's a year ahead of the path Watford is on, having played as a true freshman and then redshirted as a sophomore (in Connette's case, due to an injury). The main difference is that he had Sean Renfree in front of him as a junior, so he wasn't forced into a starting role as a redshirt sophomore. Connette is a mobile QB who is more comfortable as a pocket passer. He rushed for over 100 yards last week, almost all of it coming off the read option. Connette is more advanced as a passer that Watford is, but he's certainly no Renfree. His was able to hit some deep passes to wide open receivers. Duke's WRs are generally no better than ours, and most of them are on the smaller side, like ours. Connette did throw 4 INTs, so that's a worry, considering Watford's propensity for throwing picks this year.
The star of Pitt's D is Donald. He has 4 sacks already on the season, after just 5.5 last year. But he had 18.5 TFLs last year, which was 12th in the nation. He has 7 thus far this year. Those are very impressive numbers for a DT. Next to him, Ezell is also a good DT. At 305 pounds, he's a much bigger presence. He has started the season slowly, but he had 7 TFLs and 3.5 sacks last year. Considering the problems the Hoos have had on the interior of the line over the past two years, this is likely the matchup that will define the game. If the Hoos aren't able to consistently keep those two out of the backfield, the equation becomes much more difficult. This is yet another place where the read option can help. The OL doesn't need to hold those blocks for very long, and once Watford is outside the pocket, he won't have much trouble running away from a 300 pound DT. Other than Donald, only 1 player on the Pitt DL has a sack or TFL and that is Murphy. He has 2 TFLs and 1 sack, and that all came against New Mexico. Simply put, other than Donald, Pitt hasn't gotten what they've needed from their DL.
The struggling DL has meant that Pitt hasn't been able to generate any consistent pressure. And when they have created pressure, the mobile QBs they've faced have been able to get out of the pocket and either pick up big chunks of yards, or find open WRs. Watford could have a big game on the ground, which would, in turn, help open up the passing game for him.
Pitt's LBs are all very athletic. Thomas and Gonzalez could've easily ended up on offense, even QB in Gonzalez's case. Unfortunately, athleticism and talent isn't enough. They need seasoning. While they are 3-4-5 on the team in tackles, they've struggled to come up with big plays. Gonzalez is really more of a safety, and only moved to LB because of injuries. Those injuries included both Thomas and Gordon, both of whom have missed significant time in their careers. This has hampered their growth. All 3 are better in pass coverage, especially the 2 OLBs. Gordon is the only one who is consistent in his run fits, while the other two are often out of position. They have the athleticism to get back into the play, but often not until the RB is 5 or 10 yards downfield.
Pitt's LBs have struggled against bigger RBs. Connette is a big guy. FSU's James Wilder is a big guy. And New Mexico's Crusoe Gongbay is a big guy. All 3 had big rushing performances against the Panthers. As long as we burned the redshirt on LaChaston Smith, maybe this is a good week to see what he can really do. Parks will obviously get the bulk of the carries, and while he's not big, he is stocky and can be tough to bring down.
Obviously, Hendricks is the star of the secondary. He had 6 INTs to go along with his team leading 90 tackles. Vinopal is a Michigan transfer who has impressed so far. Pitts and Williams are solid cover guys, but not real playmakers. All are on the small side, which could mean a big game from Jake McGee. It also means we should give some extra reps to bigger WRs like Miles Gooch, Adrian Gamble and Canaan Severin. They would create a lot of mismatches, and could come up with some big plays against an average secondary.
I don't expect to see much difference this week in the Virginia offense. We're going to run first. Hopefully, we'll see ample usage of the read-option, because I think Pitt can be susceptible to that. They can also be susceptible to play-action, but obviously that will require a solid running game. It's a bit over-simplifying things as well as being obvious, but if Parks is able to get going, the Hoos offense will be successful. If he isn't, it won't.
Pitt Special Teams
PK: #12 Chris Blewitt - 5'9" 170 lb, Freshman
P: #92 Matt Yoklic - 6'4" 220 lb, Senior
KR: Boyd; Pitts
Yoklic is a good punter, averaging 46 yards per kick. His kicks are often returnable though, and right now Pitt is 2nd last in the nation in punt coverage. Duke returned a punt for a TD, and FSU's lone punt return went for 26 yards. Terrell could have continued success there. Blewitt is 3-4 on the season, but the lone miss was a block. He's a true freshman, but he's good. He's still a little bit inconsistent.
Pitt has only returned 2 punts all season, and for a total of 7 yards. Boyd has a lot of potential as a KR, and the Hoos haven't been great in that regard over the past 2 seasons. With Frye booting every KO to the same spot, Pitt will have no questions about where to set up their KR. Hopefully, the Hoos cover team is up for it.
Special teams could be a big factor in this game. With a strong defense going against a strong offense, and a weak offense going against a weak defense, the game figures to be close. A missed FG or a special teams blunder could well be the difference. Ian Frye missed a FG last week, but so did Blewitt.
The Hoos are riding high, coming off a 49-0 win. Pitt is also riding high, coming off a 58-55 win at Duke. The game wasn't really as close as the score indicates, although Pitt did have to sweat out the last couple of minutes.
Being at home, it's no surprise that Pitt is favored. The line started at a TD (it's +5.5 at press time). But the improvements the Hoos have made on defense and special teams seem ready to really bear fruit. I think the Hoos are going to come out on top, largely due to a score from one of those two units.
Prediction: Hoos 24, Panthers 20