Friend of the blog Anson Whaley, founder and editor of Cardiac Hill, once again answers our questions about what to expect from the PItt Panthers.
STL: Last year's Pitt team squeaked by Virginia in Pittsburgh, in a game that was incredibly frustrating for UVa fans. Gone off that team are all-world DT Aaron Donald, plus NFL draft picks Tom Savage and Devin Street. How would you compare this year's squad to last year's, in terms of talent, playing style, and what they can achieve?
CH: Right now, we're still trying to gauge just how good this team is. Pitt looked dominant in their first three games, but ever since the second half against Iowa in their fourth contest, have been a train wreck. Like last year, the Panthers' offense is able to score points as we saw early on this year, but that's an area they've struggled recently, scoring a grand total of 13 points in the last six quarters.
The defense has also had issues, primarily in pass coverage. But as they proved last week again Akron, they can also have problems stopping the run sometimes, too.
In terms of talent, this team has some. James Conner and Tyler Boyd are NFL players, and while the quarterback, Chad Voytik, has struggled, he's still only a redshirt sophomore that was a prized recruit. The offensive line is improving over recent years with Paul Chryst recruiting several four-star players at the position and a couple of guys, T.J. Clemmings and Matt Rotheram, could have a shot at the pros as well, according to some experts. Defensively, linebackers Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez have had good seasons, too.
The biggest detractor for Pitt is still their youth. This is the youngest team in the FBS and so many young guys are playing key roles. The few stars they have can't quite make up for all of the young talent still trying to find their way right now.
Ultimately, before last week's disaster against Akron, Pitt was viewed as a darkhorse candidate to possibly win the Coastal Division. Those expectations have been tempered quite a bit since losing to the Zips, but technically, I guess you could say that's the ceiling for the team if they get back to playing well.
STL: Sophomore RB James Conner has been the early breakout star for the Panthers, already surpassing his 2013 TD total and within 100 yards of his 2013 yardage. What's been the biggest key to his major step forward this year?
CH: It's hard to pinpoint exactly why he's been so much better than last season, but a few things are probably contributing factors. First, he's a year older and the game has likely slowed down drastically for him. He was a true freshman last year and the year of experience proably has helped quite a bit.
Conner is also 'the guy' this year and that has to help with getting into a rhythm. Backup Chris James (another true freshman) and senior Isaac Bennett are helping carry the load a little, but for the most part, this is Conner's show. Last year, he and Bennett fought each other for carries.
Also, as I mentioned, the offensive line is getting better. Offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings made the switch from the DL to the OL last year and has a year under his belt. Dorian Johnson, a five-star recruit at guard, has been inserted into the starting lineup. Adam Bisnowaty, a four-star recruit, has a year under his belt starting last year. The group still has a ways to go, but have also looked pretty decent this season. One issue is that the starting center, Artie Rowell, went out for the season with an injury and Pitt has two guys filling his role. There have been some snap problems, but overall, the improved line has contributed to Conner busting loose.
STL: Corralling Conner seems to be the key to limiting Pitt's offensive attack. QB Chad Voytik is adequate and WR Tyler Boyd has speed, size, and talent to burn, but as an outsider I'd rather make Voytik try to beat me than Conner. Is that a fair assessment? What's something I'm overlooking in Pitt's offense?
CH: Yeah, that's absolutely a fair assessment and the balance of Pitt's season will depend on how much pressure the passing game can take off of the running game. Paul Chryst has made no secret of wanting to run the ball and while they've had success doing it, lately we've seen teams stacking the box to limit Conner and forcing the team beat them through the air.
Voytik does make throws that show you why he was a highly recruited player, but he also has been inaccurate at times, too. He's yet to have a great day passing the ball against anyone and even when he has racked up some yardage, interceptions have accompanied that. He has a great weapon in Tyler Boyd, but so far, has looked to him far too often - sometimes to the point where he's the only guy Voytik is looking for out there.
One thing Pitt's offense is doing is having some success with Voytik scrambling. He's had several big runs and against Florida International, had three of more than 30 yards each, I believe. Voytik's ability to run is one trait that Tom Savage didn't have and is something that Pitt can use going forward. I'm not sure he'll be able to do it against Virginia's defense, but it's something to watch. Pitt will almost certainly throw a designed run or two his way against Virginia since they do it every game.
STL: Turning to the defensive side of the ball, it looks like there's a ton of speed but not a lot of size, especially among the LB corps. How does coordinator Matt House scheme to use those guys without exposing them to offensive linemen getting to the second level?
CH: The linebackers aren't huge, but are the best unit on defense. The secondary has struggled wildly and the defensive line hasn't brought nearly enough pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
At linebacker, senior Todd Thomas can play in the NFL and Anthony Gonzalez is having a good season - I believe Gonzo leads the team in tackles. Pitt is breaking in a new middle linebacker in Matt Galombos and he's probably the weak link of the three. Nic Grigsby will come in on occassion to play as the 'Freeze' linebacker - a hybrid between playing at LB and at DE that Paul Chryst created for him.
If the offensive linemen are getting past the defensive linemen, admittedly, there's not much the linebackers can do due to their size. But as far as actual talent on the field, they're the best unit on defense and have been solid against the run and the pass, in my opinion - last year, passing downs were an adventure with them. I'd like to see House blitz them a little more to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, utilizing some of the speed that they have.
STL: This is a big weekend for both teams. Virginia is looking to keep above .500 and get a second conference win; Pitt is looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss to Akron. What do you see being the keys to the game? And bottom line, who ya got?
CH: Personally, I took Virginia (as did four of our five writers), but these are just the types of games Pitt often wins. They looked horrible against Akron and fell apart against Iowa, so just when you expect them to flop against a team like the Cavs, that have been superior to both of those squads, the Panthers usually find a way to make these games close and even win. I expect coming off of the loss to Akron that they'll be re-focused and play better. A Pitt win wouldn't surprise me in the least, but playing a night game on the road against a team that has looked very good all year is the reason why I'm picking Virginia.
If Pitt is going to win, they'll need to get Conner going. He was limited in the second half against Iowa and shut down for the most part against Akron (fewer than 100 yards). The Panthers need to find a way to get him going, but more important than that, they need to get the offense going as a whole. The playcalling has been a little predictable and, as I wrote in an article this week, they need to do some different things to keep defenses on their toes - screen passes to Rachid Ibrahim, a 3rd down back with some speed, taking some more shots down the field to Boyd, and looking more for the tight end.
Defensively, the team has to limit the big passing plays. Pitt has had trouble keeping wide receivers in check and, as a result, the secondary has been burned. The unit lost two starters to graduation, two corners expected to compete for a starting spot transferred, and a third is suspended for the year. The position is really thin and it shows. I think the Panthers' run defense will be okay, but I'm concerned about the passing game of Virginia because Pitt's secondary has been beaten by everyone.