Both the Hoos and Panthers are 3-2, with identical 1-0 ACC records. The Hoos, of course, upset Louisville, while Pitt won @ BC. The Panthers then lost at home to Iowa, a surprising defeat, before losing to Akron, a very surprising defeat.
At 3-2, the Hoos are halfway towards bowl eligibility. And with only 2 more home games following this one, this game becomes a big one for the Hoos and Mike London. Pitt is a good team, but they aren't any more talented (or less talented) than the Hoos. These games are won with good execution, minimal mistakes and good coaching.
With some tough matchups coming up, this is a game the Hoos need to win. If they lose, their chances of reaching a bowl game diminish by quite a bit. And a loss would likely quiet some of the hype the Hoos have generated with their play thus far.
Players To Watch
#16 QB Chad Voytik - Quick release, very accurate. Not the strongest arm, but certainly adequate. Fairly athletic, but not really a running QB. Uses legs to buy time and make plays with his arm. Throws very well on the road. On the small side, at 6'1" and 205 pounds, which can cause problems finding passing lanes.
#24 RB James Connor - Recruited as a LB, and runs like it. Big, powerful runner. Good straightline speed, but not a quick-twitch guy. Will run through arm tackles. Very good in short yardage and goalline formations. Has run for 699 yards and 9 TDs already this season, after running for 799 and 8 TDs all of last year, as a true freshman. Has more carries than rest of the team combined.
#23 WR Tyler Boyd - One of most dynamic WRs in the nation. Fast, fast, fast. Quick too. Also has great hands. Will line up all over the field: split out, in the slot, in the backfield. Will also return punts. Has 21 receptions for 293 yards and 4 TDs this year, after 85 catches for 1174 yards and 7 TDs last year.
#82 WR Manasseh Garner - Bigger than Boyd, not as dynamic. Has good speed and quickness, but mostly used as a possession guy alongside Boyd. Strong also, tough to bring down. Good hands. Caught 33 passes last year for 391 yards and 3 TDs. This year, 9 receptions for 107 yards. Played two years at Wisconsin before transferring to Pitt and totaled 2 receptions for 45 yards along with recording 11 tackles as a DE.
I can't think of another offense that is as highly reliant on two players as this one is. Boyd and Connor have combined for 59% of the team's total yards (as a comparison, the top two Wahoos have combined for 25% of the team's yardage and the top 5 have combined for 56%). On the one hand, it makes it easier to gameplan against those two players. On the other hand, obviously those two players are very talented, so stopping them is very difficult.
You can double-team Boyd all day long, but Pitt will find ways to get him the ball. That may be and end-around or it may be a WR screen. He also lines up in the backfield from time to time. And, of course, he'll return punts. Plus, he's so good that two defenders can't always stop him.
Connor is a different story. You can stack the box, you can clog up running lanes, and you can win the battle against the OL. But Connor is a 250 pound RB. He's tough to bring down. Even if you all those things, he's going to pick up some yards more often than not.
Stopping Connor will be the Hoos first concern. If he's able to run wild, then Tyler Boyd almost doesn't matter. The combination of the DTs and Henry Coley will be used to clog the middle of the offense. If Connor bounces outside, the DEs will be tasked with keeping him going east-west. This will allow the DBs to come up and make tackles. Anthony Harris and Quin Blanding have been very good at this most of the season, although there were some issues this past week against BYU. Connor isn't a perimeter runner. It's not that he can't run outside, but he wants to run between the tackles, or off-tackle. He's a north-south guy. When he's running east-west, his size isn't as big a weapon and he can be cut down.
Obviously, stopping James Connor is more than just gameplan. But, if you're able to slow him down, you've won half the battle of stopping Pitt's offense. Getting them into a third and long situation puts a lot of pressure on Vostik, a young QB. That will allow the Hoos to use their pressure packages to get into his face and hopefully force some errors. This is where the Hoos will slide their defense towards Boyd in an effort to force Vostik somewhere else. If he forces passes to Boyd, hopefully the Hoos can make some plays on the ball.
Sliding the defense towards Boyd likely means leaving Garner in single coverage. It also means TE J.P. Holtz will be covered by a LB, if at all. Holtz is more of a blocking TE (and a very good blocker) but he can also slide out into the flats for receptions. He has just 4 catches on the season, but caught 23 balls last year. Connor is a decent receiver out of the backfield as well. Not a great route-runner, but he has good hands and could be dangerous, for example, releasing into the flats after blitz pickup.
In some ways, the Wahoo defense is perfectly designed to stop Pitt's offense. But, that assumes defenders making tackles at the point of attack. James Connor is very good at breaking those tackles, or at least picking up 3-4 extra yards before going down. Those yards are going to be very big, because they could be the difference between 3rd and 10 versus 3rd and 3. If the Hoos get Pitt into 3rd and 10s, they'll be successful. If Pitt is able to consistently get into 3rd and 3s, then the Hoos' defense won't be successful.
Players to Watch
#52 DE Shakir Soto - Very physical DE, long with a big wingspan. Above average speed for his size, but not a guy to get around an OT to the QB. High motor. Has added a lot of bulk since arriving at Pitt, which has helped his ability to hold at the point at attack. Is still developing, and could be a big talent in another year or two.
#91 DT Darryl Render - Good size and build for a DT. Shows explosion off the snap, but not really all that quick of a DT. Very strong at the point of attack, tough to run at. Finished with 25 tackles and 2.5 TFLs last year in a reserve role. On pace to surpass that easily this year. Not the talent that Aaron Donald was, but still a very good DT.
#28 SLB Anthony Gonzalez - Tremendously athletic, if a bit undersized for the position. Runs very well. Played QB in HS and was potentially seen as a running QB in college. Third on team in tackles last year with 79. First so far this year. Can rush the passer off the edge, can play in zone coverage and can come up and make a hit on a RB.
#8 WLB Todd Thomas - Another very athletic LB who is a bit undersized. Runs very well, maybe even faster than Gonzalez. Best coming up against the run, or coming off the edge as a pass rusher. Covers a lot of ground in zones, and has length to help defend against the pass.
#9 S Ray Vinopal -Physical safety, who closes well and can really lay a hit. Has added weight, but still undersized for the position. Covers ground quickly in deep zones. Had an up and down year last year, but finished 2nd on the team with 83 tackles, and led the team with 3 INTs. The leader of the secondary, almost by default.
#6 CB Lafayette Pitts - Lots of speed, but struggled at time last year in coverage. Despite his speed, can be beaten deep. Best playing in zone coverage, coming up to make plays on the ball. Struggles at times to find the ball in the air. Returned kicks last year, but not this year.
For the first time this season, the Hoos are facing a 4-3 team. This defense isn't all that dissimilar to the Wahoo defense, although they do not blitz quite as often as Jon Tenuta does. Pressure is mostly generated by the DEs and DTs, and the secondary plays a lot of cover-2.
The loss of Aaron Donald is a big one to overcome. He had nearly half their sacks last year, and fully a third of their TFLs. Render has replaced him, and the dropoff is noticeable. That isn't a knock on Render, rather a compliment to Donald, who was one of the top interior linemen in the nation.
The LBs for Pitt are all very fast, and they are going to make most of the plays all over the field. The OLBs, specifically, will do everything from rush the passer to play deep zones. LB Nicholas Grigsby comes in on passing downs as a LB/S hybrid they call the "Freeze" position, which is named after Grigsby's nickname. Grigsby is basically an undersized OLB who runs like a safety. He'll likely start at WLB next year after Thomas graduates. He lines up all over the field, from the line of scrimmage to the secondary. He'll play man coverage, zone coverage and he'll rush the passer. He's a bit like DaQuan Romero is for the Hoos, although not as well rounded and probably more athletic.
Because of the struggles the Panthers have had in the secondary, they can't blitz as much as they might like. They are afraid to leave their CBs alone in single coverage. They'll play a lot of cover-2, with some cover-3 thrown in as well. Their DBs are all smallish, so the jump balls that the Hoos like with their taller WRs are likely to be successful. Furthermore, underneath routes could be useful, especially on the perimeter. And despite the speed of Pitts defense, they've been beaten deep several times this year. If the OL can hold their blocks long enough, Darius Jennings and the rest of the Wahoo WR corps could have success down the middle of the field.
The Hoos haven't used their TEs much this year, but this week could be the week for them. Neither of the Pitt safeties are great in coverage, and the seam passes in front of those safeties could be a big weapon. Zach Swanson has a lot of size on the guys likely to be near him, and could run for a while.
Obviously, as the Hoos are a running team, the first priority will be to get Kevin Parks and the RBs on track. The speed of the Pitt LBs generally means running at them. That said, misdirection running plays such as read-options have been successful because Pitt's defenders have a tendency to overcommitt. The Hoos have had some success with the read-option this year, so that will be something to watch for.
Last year's contest between these two teams was one of the worst games I've ever seen. There was less than 400 yards total between the two. This one isn't likely to be that bad, for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the development of Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns, who can't help but be better than David Watford was in that game. Another reason is the development of Connor and Boyd, who the Hoos shut down reasonably well last year. Both are a year older and much better players.
Obviously, those two players are the keys. They combined for 308 yards and 3 TDs in Pitt's win @BC. If the Hoos defense is able to keep them under control, the Hoos will likely win. As I've mentioned, that is easier said than done. Boyd's abilities as a punt returner could also be a problem, as we've seen some special teams issues begin cropping up for the Hoos again.
If this game was in Pittsburgh, I'd likely be picking the Panthers. But, in Charlottesville, in front of the home crowd, I think the Hoos pull it out.
Prediction: Hoos 24, Pitt 20