The Panthers were ranked 6th in the coastal division in preseason polling by ACC media members. Then, in the season opener against Youngstown State, reigning ACC Player of the Year and All-American RB James Conner tore his MCL and was knocked out for the year. On top of that, returning QB Chad Voytik was benched for a guy who only arrived at Pitt in March.
Naturally, then, this Pitt team is now 3-1 after beating Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last week. Their lone loss was at Iowa, a team that just won a road game at Wisconsin. Still, prior to the Tech win, their 2 wins were somewhat unimpressive. Winning by 8 over Youngstown State doesn't impress anybody. And Akron hasn't looked any good this year. So, perhaps the jury is still out for Pitt. The Hokies, after all, are 2-3 and haven't looked very good since the opener against Ohio State. And they've been devastated by injuries. Whatever the case, this is a solid Pitt team. They are probably not going to finish 6th in the Coastal.
So, why is there such a difference between the preseason perception and the actual performance of this team? Well, the main thing comes down to coaching. Pat Narduzzi was one of the top young coaching candidates in college football for a while. He turned down several jobs, apparently looking for the right one. He's from near Pittsburgh, and when the opportunity came to coach the Panthers, he took it. He's a defensive guy, but he's also coached under some very good head coaches, and he's learned how to run a program.
This is the Hoos ACC opener, while Pitt is 1-0 in the conference following the win over the Hokies. If the Hoos are going to turn their season around, they need to start off well with a win in this game.
Not surprisingly for a team that lost the reigning ACC POY, the Panthers offense isn't very good. They rank 115th in the nation in total offense. That is 9 spots below the Hoos. The rushing offense ranks 72nd, while the passing offense ranks 110th.
Replacing Conner has been redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison, and he has been pretty good. He is averaging 106 yards per game, good for 29th in the nation. Though nearly half of his 427 yards came in the opener against Youngstown State (207 yards on just 16 carries). He rushed for just 17 yards in the loss at Iowa, though he did rush for 122 yards against Virginia Tech.
Like Conner, Ollison is a big bruising back. He's 6'2" 230 and is a downhill runner. He has quick feet and can move through traffic a bit, but he's not going to dance around and he's not going to try juking a defender. He's going to run through you and over you and he's going to move piles. He is a lot like Conner in that respect, though he's not quite as big as Conner. If the Hoos are going to stop him, the LBs are going to have to improve their tackling. Ollison will not go down easily, and he will not go down from arm tackles. You have to wrap up and you have to continue to pursue until he's down.
Pitt will run Ollision mostly between the tackles. They'll run straight dives, run him off-tackle, they'll run counter plays and they'll even run some read-option when Chad Voytik is in at QB.
That last part seems to be the key to Pitt's offensive frustrations. Voytik came into the season as the unquestioned leader after throwing for 2233 yards and 16 TDs versus 7 INTs in 2014. His 140.2 passer rating was 40th in the nation. Pitt didn't throw the ball very much, and finished 102nd in the nation in passing offense. But behind Conner's rushing (Voytik's 466 yards on the ground didn't hurt either), Pitt had the #15 rushing attack in the country. Overall, their offense ranked 40th nationally.
During the offseason, Pitt brought in Nate Peterman, a QB transfer from Tennessee. Peterman started twice for the Vols, but never looked comfortable and was passed on the depth chart. As a graduate transfer, he was eligible immediately and has 2 years of eligibility for the Panthers. With a coaching change for the Panthers, there was immediately talk of a QB controversy. In the season opener, Voytik played more but neither looked very good. Voytik did throw and rush for a TD in that game. In the Panthers' second game (@Akron), Peterman played more. Peterman has started the past two games for the Panthers and Voytik has played sparingly. He did not attempt a pass against the Hokies, though he did rush for 37 yards on 5 carries.
This situation is reminiscent of what the Hoos faced in 2012. After a successful year at the helm, Michael Rocco was forced into a timeshare with SEC transfer Phillip Sims. Neither was successful and it ultimately hurt the team. There are differences, without a doubt. For one thing, Pitt underwent a coaching change, while the Hoos did not. And, thus far at least, Peterman has been better than Sims ever was for the Hoos. Still, the QB carousel doesn't seem to be helping. The Panthers passing offense is actually worse than last year, at 110th in the nation (55th in passing efficiency). Even with Ollison's success, the ground game is ranked just 72nd and the team ranks 115th in the nation in total offense.
So, clearly the focus for the Hoos must be on stopping Pitt's ground game. Shut down Ollison and Pitt is done, right? Not so fast. Though the passing game is suspect, Pitt has one of the best WRs in the county. Yes, better than Notre Dame's Will Fuller. Better than UCLA's Thomas Duarte. Tyler Boyd is truly one of the most dangerous players in the country. The Panthers will try to get him the ball any way they can. If he's in one-on-one coverage on the outside, look for him to run double-moves such as slant-and-go or stop-and-go. He'll also run posts, corners and straight go routes. Anything to get him downfield in single coverage. They'll also use him on WR screens or end-arounds. Anything to get him the ball in space.
But beyond Boyd, there is very little in the cupboard for the Panthers at WR. Boyd, with 26 receptions, has nearly half of the team's total of 59. The next highest on the list among WRs is Dontez Ford, with 4 receptions. Pitt does have two solid TEs, J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff. Still, the focus for the Hoos must be stopping Boyd. Of course, that is two foci. Boyd and Ollison. If the Hoos can shut down both of them, they should come out on top. The Hokies shut down Boyd, who totaled just 5 catches for 48 yards. But Ollison gashed them for 122 yards on 19 carries. In the 3rd quarter, he had a 43 yard run, which was immediately followed by a 25 yard TD. Those two plays accounted for more than half of his yardage total, but they also accounted for the winning TD.
Ollison is helped by a quality OL. They may not be as good as the OLs the Hoos faced against UCLA or Notre Dame, but they are still very good. They average 6'4" and 307 pounds. The group is headlined by LT Adam Bisnowaty, a junior who has played in 20 games already in his career but has struggled with injuries in both of his college seasons. If he can stay healthy this year and next, he's a potential 1st round pick in 2017. The weak spot of the OL is freshman RT Brian O'Neill. Not that O'Neill can't play, but as a freshman, he's the weak spot almost by default. He's split time with fellow freshman Alex Bookser. The two are replacing last year's starter Jaryd Jones-Smith, who is out for the season with a knee injury. Wahoo pass rushers should feel safe going by RG Alex Officer, who can't actually give anybody a speeding ticket (groan, sorry I had to).
If the Hoos insist on sticking with the nickel package and sending 5 and 6 pass rushers on every play, they are going to get burnt. Either Ollison is going to bust a few big runs, or Boyd is going to beat man coverage deep. Or maybe both will happen. If there is ever a week to play safe defense, and keep the ball in front of you, this is it. Pitt's offense is not good enough to nickel and dime their way down the field. Stay home on Ollison and keep him from getting a head of steam. Keep two guys on Boyd on every play, and be careful for a reverse or a quick screen. This is essentially what the Hokies did, and they held Pitt to 17 points.
Player to Watch
#23 WR Tyler Boyd - This is kind of a no brainer, as Boyd is one of the top playmakers in the nation. A year ago, Boyd finished 17th nationally in receiving yards per game, 32nd in receptions per game and 38th (tied) in receiving TDs. He was also 21st in punt returns and 10th in kick returns.
The Hoos actually managed to bottle Boyd up last year, in their 24-19 win over the Panthers. Boyd was held to just 3 catches and 63 yards. He did have a 45 yard punt return that was a big part of Pitt's comeback attempt. Two years ago, the last time these teams faced in Heinz Field, Boyd had 111 yards receiving (and 5 rushing), accounting for more than half of Pitt's 199 total yards on the day. They won that game 14-3.
Perhaps you remember Larry Fitzgerald. The last great Pitt WR. The Hoos faced him in the 2003 Continental Tire Bowl. Boyd is 6'2" and 200 pounds, not too dissimilar from what Larry Fitzgerald was when he was in college. (Fitzgerald, at 6'3" and 215, was a bit bigger.) However, Boyd isn't the same type of receiver that Fitzgerald was. Boyd is quicker and faster. Fitzgerald was bigger and stronger. Fitzgerald never returned punts, but he was deadly on jump balls. Boyd is a dynamic punt returner, but isn't going to be used quite as much on jump balls or fade routes.
Boyd is likely going to turn pro at the end of this season, and he's going to be a first round draft pick. He's that good.
As mentioned above, the Hokies held Pitt to just 17 points. They held Pitt to jus 276 total yards. But the Panthers held Tech to 100 total yards. Yes, you read that correctly. The Hokies had 9 yards rushing. Some of that is the 7 sacks that the Hokies allowed. Still, that's a dominating defensive performance. That is how you win a game despite scoring only 17 points.
Pittsburgh has the 4th ranked defense in the nation. Their rushing defense is 4th as well. Their passing defense is 26th, but their pass efficiency defense is 12th. They are 2nd in sacks and 14th in TFLs. However, they are 98th in forcing turnovers, even after recording 3 INTs against VT.
New head coach Pat Narduzzi, former defensive coordinator at Michigan State, brings with him a 4-3 defense that often times puts 9 guys in the box. Their first goal is to stop the run. At MSU, his teams regularly finished in the top 10 in both total defense and rushing defense. This is an aggressive, pressure defense. But is aggressive differently from what Jon Tenuta and the Hoos play. Instead of sending multiple blitzers on every play, the Panthers will send 5 rushers on most plays. But the offense isn't going to know which 5 are coming. And instead of playing tight coverage on the outside, Pitt is going to play a shell defense, and keep everything in front. The Pitt DBs play a variety of coverages of course, but the base is a Cover-4. They'll give up the short pass, but they'll flow to the ball and make a quick tackle. They believe that they can get to the QB before he can get the ball out downfield. And if he does throw it downfield, the DBs are there to contest.
This defense is a veteran unit, led by seniors Ejuan Price (DL), Nicholas Grigsby (LB) and Lafayette Pitts (DB). Price is the top pass rusher on the team, with 3 sacks so far. Price was a highly regarded prospect who has struggled bigtime with injuries. He missed all of 2014 with a chest injury. He missed half of 2013 with a back injury. He missed all of 2012 with a chest injury. In 2011, as a true freshman, he 6.5 TFLs and 4 sacks as a part-time player. He's healthy now and he's the featured DE for the Panthers. He still has the athleticism that he displayed as freshman, but now he's 5 years old, 5 years wiser and a team leader.
Next to Price, in the middle of the DL, are two great run stoppers. First and foremost is junior Tyrique Jarrett, a 335 pound space eater. Running at him is a bad idea. He's tied for the team lead with 4.5 TFLs. Next to him is senior Darryl Render, who is a mere 300 pounds. The interior of the Hoos OL has struggled to create space in the running game, and that isn't likely to change this week.
Grigsby is listed as the "star" LB, or basically a strong-side LB. Grigsby's main job is to get into the backfield and cause problems. He's quick. Very quick for a 6'1" 225 pound LB. He excels at getting a jump on the snap and getting into the backfield before he can be engaged. He's strong, but he's not strong enough to fight off blocks from 300 lb OTs. He'd much rather take on a RB or TE. He is 2nd on the team with 2.5 sacks.
The other OLB is Bam Bradley, who plays the "money" LB. He is a hybrid WLB/SS who spends time rushing the passer, but also is used in pass coverage. Bradley came into college as a 195 pound safety and has put on nearly 40 pounds in order to play LB. He's more LB than SS, but he has good coverage skills for a LB. He is tied with Price and Jarrett as the team leader in TFLs with 4.5 so far this year.
The team leader in tackles is freshman SS Jordan Whitehead. Just 5'11" and 195, he's small for a SS. He was recruited largely as a CB, but he's added muscle and moved to safety. He runs well and plays bigger than he is. But he can be a liability in pass coverage against bigger WRs or TEs. One of the main reasons he moved to SS was the presence of CBs Avonte Maddox and Lafayette Pitts. Both are top cover CBs, who can play press coverage or can play in the Cover-4 and come up to make plays. Pitts led the team last year with 8 passes defended. Maddox (playing in an entirely different defensive system), has 7 already this year.
Leading the team in INTs this year is FS Terrish Webb, who also tied for the team lead last year. Webb is not the most physical of DBs, but he's a good cover guy and he covers a lot of ground. On a lot of plays, there isn't a ton of difference between the 4 DBs on the field for Pitt. They are covering different areas of the field, of course, and the safeties generally have more responsibility against the ground game, but all are in a pretty basic zone defense across the field. Webb's quickness and ability to read the QB allows him to make plays even outside of his zone. QBs throwing rushed passes might not realize where Webb is or how much ground he can cover.
Player to Watch
#3 SLB Nicholas Grigsby - Some people might put Price here, but the Hoos have been fairly successful this year with pass rushing DLs. They've struggled with blitzing LBs. Whether that is a communication thing on the OL, or a coaching issue, or just that they've faced some very good LBs doesn't matter. The truth is that Pitt is going to send LBs into the backfield and the Hoos are going to have to deal with that. Running a lot of spread offense sets often gives the defense a free run into the backfield. And the Hoos running backs are not the best blocking unit in the world.
Price, more often than not is simply going to be trying to beat an OT one-on-one. But Narduzzi is a genius at coming up with creative blitzes from his LBs. Whether it is delayed blitzes, or stunts, or an overload blitz, he's going to find ways to get pressure. Price may get the sacks, but many times it'll be Grigsby (or Bam Bradley) creating the pressure that Price cleans up.
In truth, I could've put Bradley here as well. Both Pitt OLBs are going to spend a lot of time in the Hoos backfield. How Steve Fairchild and Matt Johns handle that pressure is going to determine how well the Hoos offense performs.
The Hoos have finally found a punt returner in Maurice Canady. Why it took 3+ years for somebody to realize that he was the best PR on the team is beyond me, but nonetheless, he is a threat to take a return back to the house on every punt. And yet, he's not as big a threat as Boyd is. And Boyd is also a threat on kickoff returns, while the Hoos have been atrocious on kickoff returns. Also, Pitts coverage teams are better than Virginia's.
As for the rest of special teams, the Hoos probably have the advantage. Nicholas Conte has proven to be a very good punter, averaging almost 47 yards per punt, good for 7th in the nation. Ryan Winslow, Pitt's punter, ranks 86th in that category at under 40 yards per punt. Both Ian Frye and Chris Blewitt have struggled this year after being more successful last year. If the game comes down to a FG on either side, my money is the kickers to come through.
This is not a great matchup for the Hoos. The Hoos have struggled against aggressive defenses and Pitt's is very aggressive. And the Hoos have struggled with power running games, and Pitt's power running game is pretty solid.
As I mentioned, if the Hoos insist on playing the same pass rushing, gambling defense, they're going to continue to get burned. There may be games later in the season when that scheme will work out. But against this team, you don't want to give up big plays.
Stopping Ollison and the rushing game comes first, but you also have to have your eye on Boyd at all times. If the Hoos can do those two things, and avoid giving up big plays, they can shut down a mediocre Pitt offense. However, that still leaves the Hoos needing to score some points. And I'm not confident that they can do it, on the road, against this defense.
For the Hoos to be in this game, either somebody on the Hoos is going to have to make a big play on their own, or Pitt is going to have to make mistakes. This Panther team is a well-coached team that isn't likely to make mistakes.
This game is really going to highlight the difference between a good coaching hire and a bad coaching hire. Narduzzi was a very well-respected coordinator who was in the running for almost every vacant head coach spot before he took the Pitt job. Mike London was an FCS team who lacked experience at big-time college football and it shows now. It's obviously still early in Narduzzi's tenure. Maybe things fall apart down the line. But I doubt it. And I doubt the Hoos can win this game.
Prediction: Pitt 24, Hoos 6