It's bad enough we have to endure Christmas songs and commercials the day after Halloween, now we have Black Friday sales creeping into Turkey Day.
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Pitt earned bowl eligibility for the sixth consecutive season Saturday, beating Syracuse 17-16 up in the Carrier Dome. Like most of Pitt's wins this year, it wasn't the most convincing victory, nor did it garner a lot of "style points." The offense moved in fits and starts, but, especially playing without some key players, on the road, against an aggressive defense, I'm sure Paul Chryst and company will take it. Let's look at the positions...
Quarterback: Pitt's gameplan Saturday was predicated mostly on short passes designed to counter a blitz-heavy Syracuse defense, so Tom Savage wasn't asked to do a ton with his arm. His longest throw of the day was a 17-yard pass to JP Holtz late in the third quarter (on the drive that ended in Pitt's go-ahead touchdown). On these short screen and swing passes, Savage was mostly accurate, but did miss a couple of balls. Accuracy on short passes isn't really his strength, but he did a good enough job Saturday of getting the ball out quickly. He also did a good job of checking down on a lot of plays to take open passes to tight ends, something he had trouble with earlier in the year.
Sometimes, though, it wasn't quickly enough. Savage took three sacks Saturday, and also got hit plenty more times (the official stat book lists five quarterback hurries for Syracuse). There were a couple of times, especially late in the game, where it looked like he might not get up, but he battled through. There are certainly plenty of valid criticisms of Savage's play this year, but his toughness is not one of them.
He did throw one interception, but it was a ball that Tyler Boyd really should have caught. It bounced off Boyd's hands instead, and a Syracuse defender came down with it. Savage's accuracy in general has really improved as the year has progressed, and that was just his second interception since the Virginia game at the end of September.
Running back: Not a great game for either Isaac Bennett or James Conner Saturday. Bennett had 28 yards on 11 cares (2.5 ypc) and Conner had 26 yards on seven carries (3.7 ypc).
Bennett got almost all of the second half work, as Conner had just one carry after halftime. Bennett did score on a five-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter to give Pitt the 17-16 lead it would never relinquish.
As for the disparity in carries, Chryst said that Conner wasn't injured or anything, just that the situations called for Bennett's skill set. There were a lot of passing downs in the second half Saturday, which have become Bennett's territory over the past several weeks.
Bennett is also better at following his blocks, largely because he's the more experienced guy. Against an aggressive defense like Syracuse, that's important to limit negative plays. He did miss one play where he didn't quite wait for center Artie Rowell to get on his man for what could have been a big game.
Conner also had a couple of nice runs Saturday (including Pitt's longest run of the day, 14 yards), so I don't think there's anything to be concerned about at the running back spot. Pitt just needs to get better overall at running the football.
Wide receivers: We got a preview of what Pitt's receiving corps could look like next year without Devin Street, who was questionable with an ankle injury coming in and left after only a couple of plays when he suffered an elbow injury. Boyd, obviously, was the primary target, with 10 catches for 82 yards. Other than that, Kevin Weatherspoon was the only receiver to register a catch (aside from Street's two before he got hurt). I think Weatherspoon has come on pretty nicely this year, but I think he fits in more as a slot receiver, rather than a guy who can be a primary target on the outside. Some of Street's targets went to Chris Wuestner Saturday, who is still looking for his first career catch. Boyd is obviously a special talent and Pitt managed all right Saturday, but I do think it was an indicator of a couple of question marks at wide receiver heading into the offseason.
Tight end: Finally, a game where the tight ends really got involved in Pitt's passing attack. Manasseh Garner had a career-high seven catches for 61 yards and a touchdown and Holtz added four grabs for 39 yards. Even freshman Jaymar Parrish had three catches for 19 yards, primarily on quick playaction rollouts by Savage.
The caveat here is that Garner's catches didn't all come from a true tight end position. He was probably the player most singularly responsible for making up for Street's absence, and flexed out wide frequently Saturday. That may not go a long way to ameliorate any wide receiver concerns Pitt has heading into next year, but it's a great option to have for a game like this where they need a big, experienced guy to step in and fill Street's production void.
Offensive line: At this point in the season, I think Pitt's offensive line just is what it is. The Panthers are certainly banged up, with two regular starters (Cory King and Adam Bisnowaty) and one reserve (Gabe Roberts) out due to injury. The line struggled pretty mightily against Syracuse, but was able to do just enough thanks largely to a good gameplan that, like I said earlier, focused heavily on getting the ball out quickly. There weren't too many five- or seven-step drops for Savage, and that cut down on the sack numbers (from eight against North Carolina).
The only particularly notable negative play was when Pitt had first-and-goal at the Syracuse 3-yard line early in the second quarter. The Panthers tried to run a playaction pass, but there were Syracuse defenders on Savage before he could even really try to find a receiver. Pitt ended up settling for a long field goal there.
The Panthers also didn't get much push running the ball, which isn't necessarily a huge indictment against a Syracuse run defense that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this year. If they have similar problems against a porous Miami run defense, though, that would be an issue.
I do think it's worth noting that Juantez Hollins has played very well since stepping in at the left tackle spot. He was suspended all of last year for a violation of team rules, and it would've been pretty easy to just quit (he even admitted so Monday). Instead, he stuck it out, and is not providing a stable presence at left tackle as Dorian Johnson continues to adapt to college football. Johnson will be very good eventually, but Hollins is the better player right now.
Defensive line: Honestly, what more can you say about Aaron Donald at this point? Just another game with nine tackles (eight solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and one blocked extra point. Ho hum. Donald impacts a higher percentage of plays than just about any defender I have ever seen. Even if he's not making a tackle, he's almost always forcing a guy outside or getting pressure on the quarterback. He alone makes it hard for opposing offenses to generate any sort of consistency, and that will keep Pitt in most games.
We have also seen a lot more of Darryl Render the past few games. In fact, it looked like Saturday he had more snaps than regular starter Tyrone Ezell. I don't think that's a knock on Ezell by any means, but just a comment on how much Render has stepped his game up this season. The defensive line will obviously take a step back next year with the losses of Donald and Ezell, but I think Render is showing that he'll be able to step in more than capably and be a contributor there next season.
Linebacker: Another nice game Saturday for Anthony Gonzalez, who I think has become the Panthers' most consistent and reliable linebacker after shuffling through just about every position on the field during his first couple of years. He stays on for virtually every play, and is in Pitt's nickel and dime formations (in the latter, he's the only linebacker on the field). He showed again Saturday that he moves well enough to cover receivers in space, too. Gonzalez also led the Panthers with 11 tackles, all solo, on the afternoon.
Shane Gordon got hurt midway through the game and was replaced by Matt Galambos. We'll see this week what Gordon's status is moving forward.
Because of the way Syracuse plays on offense, Pitt spent a lot of this game in its nickel and dime formations, meaning there's a little bit less to look at from the linebacker point of view.
Secondary: The secondary, however, came out in a lot of different looks Saturday. Cornerback Trenton Coles returned from his head injury, and returned to his role as primary nickelback. There were also some plays, however, when the Panthers had Coles on the field and did what they did last week, moving Jason Hendricks down onto a receiver and putting Terrish Webb back in coverage at safety. This put six defensive backs on the field for those plays. Orange quarterback Terrel Hunt was pretty inaccurate all afternoon, so I think the strategy here was probably to blanket the receivers, let Donald and company get pressure along the line and force Hunt to make an accurate throw (which he rarely did).
Pitt also brought pressure with its defensive backs a couple of times Saturday, something they have done with mixed results so far this season. Hendricks had a nice play when he batted down a pass on a blitz.
Lafayette Pitts continued his up-and-down year. He had the key pass breakup on Syracuse's final play of the game, and added a nice tackle for loss earlier in the game. He also, though, got beat by Orange receiver Alvin Cornelius on the touchdown pass that put Syracuse up 16-10. It was a perfect throw from Hunt and a nice catch by Cornelius, but he did get past Pitts on the play.
Special teams: Freshman Chris Blewitt made his only field goal attempt from 43 yards, and I think it has been pretty impressive how he has been able to adjust to college football through 11 games. He hasn't been perfect, but Blewitt has demonstrated a short memory after his misses and hasn't gone through any prolonged funks this year.
Weatherspoon had two fumbles on punt returns this year, but Chryst stuck with him back there. I think, eventually (probably not this year), it'll probably be Boyd back there returning punts. He has more big-play ability, but as a freshman may not be as reliable coming down with the ball. If the argument for going with Weatherspoon is ball security, though, this obviously wasn't a great game for him. I highly doubt we'll see a change back there at this point in the season, but if Weatherspoon has another fumble or two, maybe Chryst and company will start experimenting.
Rachid Ibrahim also returned two kicks. My guess here is that Chryst didn't want to stress Boyd, who was taking over primary receiver duties with Street out.
Coaching: Pitt came into this game with a very clear offensive strategy, focusing on short passes to get the ball out of Savage's hands and negate Syracuse's pass rush. For the most part, it was pretty successful. I wouldn't say the offense was working like clockwork, but it got enough points to win, and that's what matters in the end. Especially without Street, Pitt didn't have a ton of downfield threats, so the more conservative passing game makes even a little bit more sense.
Defensively, I know coordinator Matt House has come under some criticism this year, and there are certainly some small nits that could be picked within gameplans, but if you look at the big picture, it's hard to not be pretty pleased with the job the defense has done this year. After a first drive where they got gashed on the ground with a no-huddle, up-tempo offense, the Panthers adjusted and held Syracuse running back Jerome Smith to just 51 yards on 15 carries after that series.
The only real coaching moment was the timeout called late in the game that negated what could have been a game-winning fake field goal for Syracuse. For one thing, it was a pretty brilliant call by Scott Shafer, and looked like it was perfectly set up. Chryst, though, saw something was off (even if it was just his field goal unit scrambling around a little bit) and called the timeout. Chryst has struggled with his timeout management at times this season, but having one there probably saved the Panthers the game.
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen joined the media corps Tuesday for his weekly press conference.
Here are a few news bullets:
• Next up: Iowa State (2-9, 1-7 Big 12). "They're without a doubt the most competitive 2-9 team in the country." Shut out Kansas last weekend to earn first Big 12 game. "They're an incredibly tough outfit." Seems they've found their identity offensively, going with QB Grant Rohach, a name Holgorsen admittedly had no idea how to pronounce. LB Jeremiah George "is just a tremendous football player." On special teams, have already broken three kickoffs loose, and there could have been three more. Team got some real momentum last week after taking some tough losses. "Been telling the guys all week that at this time of year it doesn't matter who you play, it's who has energy and effort and will fight its butt of that will win."
• Can't dwell on the Kansas loss, just like you can't dwell on wins. "We got over Kansas the next day." Been "relatively happy" with the way they've prepared.
• Developmental week last week, but didn't necessarily learn anything new from the young guys. It was just three days, it doesn't hurt but it also doesn't do a ton for you.
• Iowa State is going to try to run and stop the run. A lot of the rushing yards Iowa State has allowed has been by QBs, "which we don't have the luxury of doing." Going to try to establish the run anyway, and when they start stacking the box, WVU will turn to the pass.
• QBs: Clint Trickett and Paul Millard are splitting the reps 50/50 this week. Ford Childress is available but won't be the starter. "We haven't had a winning performance offensively this year, not one time." Says to point the job at him, he didn't get people prepared well enough. "I don't expect ever again to be in the same situation again that we were in this year."
• Senior class: "It's been tough for them. I appreciate these guys." Job on Saturday is to put the best foot forward on Saturday for the seniors. "This will be the last week together as a team, so we've got to make it count."
• RBs: "There's not difference" in how WVU is using Wendell Smallwood compared to Charles Sims. Holgorsen had Sims as a true freshman and saw the exact same thing. Smallwood has learned from Sims this year, and that'll play a large role down the road. "Not a lot of people do what we do with them."
• Injury report: Darwin Cook, Curtis Feigt, Isaiah Bruce, Daryl Worley are questionable and haven't practiced to the point where they can play yet. Jared Barber had surgery. KJ is out. Christian Brown will be back in January. Malik Greaves has a hip problem, will be back in March. Doug Rigg should be back and good this week.
• Thankful for: seniors and the Big 12. "I think we're a better football team this year than last year, minus maybe one or two guys."