This still might or might not become a regular feature on the blog, but to get a sense of what’s going on with Pittsburgh, I did a blog exchange with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Panthers beat writer Sam Werner.
Here are the questions I answered for him. Now for Sam’s answers about Pitt …
AB: How ready is quarterback Tom Savage after suffering a concussion against Virginia? Considering Pitt has given up 13 sacks this year, how much of a concern is going against a Hokies team that has a pretty good pass rush?
SW: According to all reports from coach Paul Chryst, Savage is good and ready to go for this Saturday. From what I’ve heard from a couple of people around the team, the concussion was a concern, but the bigger injury issue were Savage’s ribs after he took a bunch of hard shots against Virginia. He’s a tough guy (he has to be, since he’s about as mobile as a utility pole) so he’ll be ready to stand in there this weekend.
That sack total is a bit deceiving, considering that seven of them came against Virginia last week in what was an exceptionally bad game for Pitt’s pass protection. Through the first three games, the offensive line (with three new starters and the other two guys changing positions) had actually been a pretty pleasant surprise. They even did a pretty good job against Florida State in the opener. Coaches this week have been pretty adamant that the sack total doesn’t totally fall on the offensive line, but also on backs not helping out with blocks and Savage not getting the ball out quickly enough.
With all that said, though, I do think the Hokies pass rush is a concern for Pitt this week. Pitt was very unsuccessful running the ball on first down against the Cavaliers, which put the Panthers in frequent third-and-long situations where Virginia could just pin its ears back and rush Savage. Pitt needs to do a better job on first and second down to get manageable third downs where they can either run the ball or hit some quick passes.
AB: Who is more integral to the offense: freshman running back James Conner, who has filled a void, or Tyler Boyd and Devin Street, who might be the best receiving duo in the league?
SW: Boy, that’s a tough one to answer, since both have been pretty vital to Pitt’s offensive success so far this season. I’m going to go with a slight edge to Boyd, for a couple of reasons. First, he’s such a versatile player, not just on offense, but also returning kicks as well. He even got a couple of carries out of the backfield in the Virginia game (not to mention the runs he’ll get on end-arounds). Second, while Conner has been great, junior Isaac Bennett (still technically the starter at running back) has actually pounded out a respectable 4.5 yards per carry this season. He has taken a backseat to Conner the last two games, but Chryst insists that he’s going to run the hot hand at running back, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Bennett was the lead guy in one of these next few games.
None of that is any disservice to Conner, who has been fantastic this season. He was recruited as a defensive end until the very end of his senior season in high school (and he looks like it at 6-2, 240 pounds). He’s big enough to run over guys, but has also shown some nifty moves in the open field so far this year. There was a lot of panic when Pitt lost Rushel Shell in the offseason, but Conner has been just as impressive from a production standpoint as Shell was as a freshman last season.
AB: The Panthers gave up 55 points to Duke and then 3 to Virginia, so it’s hard to get a handle on what their defense is really like. Is there a part of this defense that’s exceeding expectations and a part that’s not?
SW: I think a good portion of the credit for the defense in the Virginia game has to go to the Cavaliers’ total ineptitude on offense. They dropped 10 passes and never really looked close to being a threat.
The defense does appear to be getting a little bit better, though. Aaron Donald is good enough at defensive tackle that he can make up for some other deficiencies in the front seven. The defensive ends and linebackers, in particular, have struggled at times this season, especially against mobile quarterbacks. I think the biggest problem is Pitt’s defense just doesn’t match up well when it has to spread out and cover a team in space. Against Duke, the linebackers had to make tackles in space and failed. Virginia, which is a bit more conventional offensively, allowed them to just clog up the middle and stop them that way.
The biggest enigma for Pitt’s defense so far has been the secondary. This unit was supposed to be a major strength, with three returning starters from last year (CBs K’Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts and safety Jason Hendricks), all of whom are really talented players. I think this is the area that has been impacted most by the change at defensive coordinator from Dave Huxtable to Matt House. House employs more zone concepts, while Huxtable was pretty exclusively man-to-man. The players admitted after the Duke game that there have been some bumps in the transition, and we’ll see if those can get smoothed out.
AB: Pitt has had Virginia Tech’s number lately, not just last year but back in the early 2000’s when both were still in the Big East. Are there any theories — either by you or anyone around the program — for why the Panthers have given the Hokies so much trouble over the years?
SW: My only theory would be that Pitt views Virginia Tech annually as a very big game, and they get up for it. We saw last year especially that the Panthers played really well in big games (Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Rutgers), but didn’t put it together in other games like Youngstown State or Connecticut. Even in years where the Hokies are “down” like last year, Pitt gets pumped up to play that team with VT on their helmets. A couple of players have also said that they felt Virginia Tech took them lightly last year (and, at 0-2 with a loss to Youngstown State, that’s understandable).
I don’t think that’ll happen again this year, but Pitt is definitely viewing this as a statement game for the team this year. Upset the top-25 Hokies in Blacksburg and suddenly Pitt is right in the upper echelon of the ACC.
AB: Pitt is 2-1 in the ACC so far but has beaten Duke and Virginia, probably the two worst teams in the Coastal. Is there a sense that this team can be a factor in the division race this year or is Paul Chryst still a year or two away from turning this team into a contender?
SW: Talent-wise, Pitt is still a step or two below the top teams in the division, but the schedule sets up very, very favorably for them and it wouldn’t surprise me if they inserted themselves into the race Coastal title as the season progresses.
While it would be an upset, it’s certainly not unfathomable for Pitt to beat Virginia Tech this weekend. They get to play Georgia Tech in early November, the week after Navy, so the Panthers should have a good idea of how to stop the triple option. Finally, Pitt closes out the season against Miami at home in what will likely be a cold-weather game in late November at Heinz Field, probably not the Hurricanes’ ideal scenario.
Especially after the last two games, the jury is still out on Pitt’s identity as a team this year, but I think they’ve shown enough to affirm that they’ll be competitive in most ACC games this year (even the loss to Florida State in the opener doesn’t look so bad after what the Seminoles did to Maryland this week). I don’t think any team in the Coastal is head and shoulders above the rest the way Florida State and Clemson are in the Atlantic, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Pitt in the thick of it late into the season.