No, it wasn't pretty, but Pitt got back in the win column against Old Dominion Saturday night. There is still plenty the Panthers need to fix, but I think it's important to remember that the Monarchs are better than your average I-AA opponent. Their quarterback won the I-AA equivalent of the Heisman last year and it wouldn't shock me (at all) to see them in a bowl game when they join Conference USA next year (I also wouldn't be at all surprised to see them upset North Carolina in the season finale).
I think if you look at the bigger picture, and see that Pitt is 4-2 through six games with the only losses coming to Florida State (which very well could be the best team in the country) and Virginia Tech (which has only lost to No. 1 Alabama), you'd have to take that if you're Paul Chryst. With that, let's get to the positions...
Quarterback: The best part about this game for Tom Savage is that he, for the most part, stayed upright. After taking 15 sacks in the past two games, Savage went down only twice against the Monarchs. Now, that still probably isn't a huge moral victory, since Old Dominion had just seven sacks as a team (mostly in games against I-AA competition) heading in, but overall pass protection looked better. Pitt didn't throw a ton, and it didn't help Savage that his top receiver, Devin Street, missed the game with a shoulder injury.
When Savage did throw, though, he didn't look great. He bounced a good number of throws and missed some open guys. Chryst admitted that he missed some throws after the game, but didn't think there was any overarching problem that caused the inaccuracy. It looked like the timing and rhythm of the passing game was thrown a little bit out of whack because Street wasn't playing and, with only 18 pass attempts, Savage never really got into a groove throwing it.
Running back: Obviously, you have to start here with an absolutely fantastic game from Isaac Bennett. The junior rushed for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman Rachid Ibrahim chipped in six carries for 18 yards.
A lot of the production was just Pitt completely overmatching the Monarchs physically, but it's still important and an encouraging sign for the Panthers to see Bennett run as effectively as he did. He has been overshadowed by freshman James Conner so far this year, but even heading into the Old Dominion game, Bennett had been quietly averaging a very respectable 4.5 yards per carry. The problem with Bennett is that he really hasn't shown the breakaway speed that would make him an ideal counterpunch to Conner in the rushing attack, and he looked a little more explosive against the Monarchs. Still, going forward, Bennett and Conner are both pretty similar running backs, in terms of style at this point, so I think the likely scenario is one of them grabbing the reins from game to game. This week, though, showed that Bennett is very capable of being the feature back in this offense.
Wide receivers: Very, very little to go off of here. Tyler Boyd had a ho-hum six catches for 46 yards and Ed Tinker had one catch for nine yards. This unit was really hurt by Street's absence, and against a tougher opponent that could really be a concern. It was good to see Boyd was still able to get open for six grabs without Street to draw coverages away. Long-term, though, this game shows that, beyond Street and Boyd, Pitt's receiving corps is still inconsistent at best.
Tight ends: Tight ends accounted for four of Savage's 11 completions, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to Manasseh Garner. With no Street, it looked like the tight ends filled the void as the next receiving option.
The tight ends also did their part to keep Savage's jersey clean Saturday, and paved the way for some outside runs.
Offensive line: This was a game that this unit needed. The Panthers offensive line outweighed Old Dominion's defensive line by an average of 25 pounds a person, and the talent gap was obvious throughout the game. Plain and simple, Pitt just pushed around an overmatched opponent up front, especially in the running game.
That's almost secondary, though. After giving up 15 sacks in the two previous games, this was a group in desperate need of a confidence boost. One sack came on a linebacker blitz, and the other came on some pressure up the middle, and both were after they had given Savage some time to get rid of the ball first.
Perhaps what was most impressive was how Ryan Schlieper was able to step in for Cory King and play well right away. Pitt's biggest advantage was just running the ball up the gut and that's the guards leading the way. Guard Matt Rotheram even said yesterday that there were a couple of times Pitt would call the same running play a few times in a row just because it was working so well. Pitt will have a physical advantage up front again this week against Navy, so it would be a positive sign if they could keep up the same strong play for two weeks in a row.
Defensive line: For the first time this season, Aaron Donald finished the game without a sack. Overall, it was a pretty unremarkable game for Donald (though that shouldn't do anything to take away from the outstanding season he is having). He finished the night with two tackles, and 0.5 tackles for loss.
While Donald may not have had his best game, Bryan Murphy and Ejuan Price were both outstanding at the starting defensive end spots. Murphy, especially, got pretty constant pressure on Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke. He finished with one sack, but in all honesty could have had two or three more as well.
As defensive ends coach John Palermo said earlier this week, it was Murphy and Price getting the starts at defensive end ahead of David Durham, who finished the game with no tackles but one quarterback hurry. Palermo said Murphy and Price are more adept at stopping a spread offense, while Durham is more of a "grinder." I would expect to see a little more of Durham against navy, which plays much more in-the-box football.
Linebackers: The big question I got during the game (and since) is why we didn't see more Todd Thomas on the field. The answer, which was clear during the game and elucidated by Chryst afterwards, was that the Panthers played almost exclusively nickel and dime coverages against Old Dominion's pass-heavy spread scheme. Thomas has not been a part of these packages dating all the way back to training camp. Now, there's a reasonable argument to be made that Thomas should be worked into these groups more as the season progresses, especially for games like North Carolina where Pitt will face more spread teams. But on Saturday, the coaching staff wasn't going to put Thomas on the field just to have him out there, without a clear idea of what his assignments were in that substitution package. This could be a case where Thomas' self-imposed exile early in training camp is coming back to bite him. He missed a week of installation and had to play catch-up when he came back. That might have made it tough for him to work into all the different specialty packages Pitt has on defense.
As for the rest of the unit, Anthony Gonzalez stuck out to me as having a pretty good game. He generally did a good job of staying around the ball and keeping the Monarchs honest in the run game. With a couple of exceptions, the linebackers also did a good job of keeping Heinicke in the pocket and making him throw the ball rather than take off and run. The one glaring exception to this was his 24-yard run late in the game, when absolutely no one was covering the middle of the field and he converted a 2nd-and-8 on a drive that ultimately ended in an Old Dominion touchdown.
Secondary: It was really a mixed bag with this unit on Saturday night. On the positive side, Ray Vinopal played his best game of the season, ending the day with an interception, a pass breakup and a team-high seven tackles. Him playing well down the stretch would go a long way towards shoring up some of the concerns in Pitt's pass defense that we've seen early in the season. Jason Hendricks just barely missed an interception down the stretch too that would have cut short Old Dominion's late comeback attempts.
But, there were also some negatives to the play of the defensive backfield Saturday. I don't think either of the cornerbacks played particularly well. K'Waun Williams got flagged for an unnecessary facemask penalty on Old Dominion's first drive that gave the Monarchs a third-down conversion and allowed them to end the drive with a touchdown. Lafayette Pitts also got beat a couple of times, including on that first Old Dominion touchdown pass. For as well as Pitts played last season, he hasn't really been able to build on it so far this year. He hasn't really been bad, per se, but just hasn't made the jump in consistency that you would expect from a second-year starter.
The biggest overarching problem for the secondary Saturday was allowing Old Dominion to convert too many long-yardage situations. On most of these plays, the defense looked tentative in its zone coverage and let the receivers find holes. I still think the unit is transitioning to Matt House's zone concepts, and aren't at the point yet where tey can execute them without thinking.
Special Teams: Kevin Weatherspoon, meet the Turf Monster. Weatherspoon was 12 yards away from scoring his first career touchdown on what would have been a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown when he tripped up over the Heinz Field grass. It ended up being a 56-yard return to the Old Dominion 12-yard line (still Pitt's longest punt return since 2006) and the Panthers did get a touchdown on the drive. If Weatherspoon can add even an occasional threat in the punt return game, that could be a major bonus for Pitt, which has struggled in winning the field position battle in recent weeks.
Matt Yoklic actually had a nice game here. He pinned Old Dominion inside its own 20-yard line four times, with two of those coming in the fourth quarter, giving the Monarchs a long field as they tried to complete a desperate comeback.
Coaching: On offense, Chryst and company kept it simple. Old Dominion showed no indication of being able to stop the run, so Pitt just kept pounding the ball with Bennett to great success. No, Savage's day wasn't perfect, but that's something for the coaches to worry about another day. It's hard to really have any qualms with the playcalling here.
On defense, the two major decisions I saw were the use of Thomas in their defensive packages and some of the safer coverage schemes on long yardage situations. I already touched on Thomas' situation, and a little bit on the coverages. I get that, especially given the game situation, Chryst and House were more concerned with not giving up a huge play for a touchdown after they got burned on a blitz. A 3rd-and-15 conversion is frustrating, but it's better than a 70-yard touchdown pass. In a closer game, maybe Pitt would be a little more aggressive in those situations, but in a game where you have a lead and a physical advantage, no need to give the opponents chances for big plays.