Pitt opened its season with about as impressive a win as the Panthers could've hoped for Saturday, pounding Delaware 62-0. Yes, it came against an FCS opponent, but that was about as dominant as the Panthers have looked in Paul Chryst's three years at the helm. Pitt ran the ball with absolute authority and made life easy for first-time starting quarterback Chad Voytik. Delaware is easily the worst team on Pitt's schedule this year, but the Panthers deserve some credit for making them look like it. Let's take a look at the positions...
Quarterback: Like I said in the intro, there wasn't a whole lot for Voytik to do Saturday with his team running the ball as well as it did. In his first collegiate start, Voytik finished 10 of 13 for 84 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn't sacked and never really faced any pressure from Delaware's defense.
On Voytik's first touchdown pass, he had receiver Tyler Boyd lined up in the slot on the left side running a corner route. Boyd needed to make a diving catch on the throw, and Voytik admitted he threw it a little bit early. But this was a good play by Voytik for two reasons. First, he recognized the coverage and knew that a ball to that spot of the field would result in an incompletion, at worst. The defender was trailing Boyd, so by leading him that way there was no risk of an interception. Second, Voytik seems to recognize the kind of special talent he has in Boyd and can be a little more liberal with where he puts the ball. If that's an average receiver running that route, Voytik might feel pressure to keep it closer to him, which could result in an incompletion or interception. But with Boyd out there, Voytik knows he has a bigger target area because of Boyd's athleticism.
Voytik's second touchdown pass came when it was such a blowout that it's almost not even worth mentioning, but there are a couple of things there. First, this was one of the rare cases where Pitt actually faced a 3rd-and-goal situation, the problem is that Delaware's defense was so inept on the play it didn't really challenge Voytik. The Blue Hens basically sold out to stop the run, and Voytik had his choice of receiving targets in the end zone. He did make a mistake here by missing Jaymar Parrish wide open in the flat, and made a more difficult throw than he had to by pushing it through some traffic to Scott Orndoff in the back of the end zone. This is a decision that could come back to bite you against better teams in a closer game.
The only other negative from this game, which I touched on briefly, is that Voytik didn't get put in many 3rd-and-long passing situations. It almost would've been nice to see him on a play where Delaware could pin its ears back and pass rush, but that's what happens when you run the ball so well. It was a solid debut for Voytik, but definitely room to improve.
Running backs: Heading into this game one of the things I was most interested to see how Pitt divvied up the running back carries and, even though the game got out of hand early, I think we got an idea. James Conner is clearly the lead back on this offense. He ran it 14 times for 153 yards and four touchdowns, all in the first half. In that first half, Conner received 14 of the 20 running back carries. I think it's safe to say that, when he's running well, it's going to be Conner in the backfield. As the game started getting out of hand, Chris James and Rachid Ibrahim also both got some time as the primary backs. Ibrahim finished with 14 carries for 91 yards, and James had 14 carries for 77 yards and two touchdowns. I think the 14/14/14 split here was influenced heavily by the score of the game, and that in closer games it'll skew more towards Conner. After that, it'll likely be James getting a few series as the primary back, with Ibrahim switching over to a third-down role.
When it comes to Conner, the biggest thing I saw from Saturday's game is that he looked like a much more confident and physical runner than he was for most of last year. Even as a bigger back, he had a tendency last season to run away from guys or take it to the outside more than a guy his size should, and that wasn't the case Saturday. He ran towards contact, using his size to run over some defenders and, more importantly, wear down the Delaware defense. In terms of the backup guys, I liked what I saw from James, who is a nice change-of-pace back from Conner. He's really shifty, and does a good job navigating through tight spaces. He's still a freshman, so there will be a learning curve, but he just looks like a natural runner.
Wide receivers: This unit, almost more than Voytik, is tough to evaluate from that game. With so few passing situations, it's hard to say much other than the obvious. Tyler Boyd is still very good at football, and his brief injury scare Saturday should serve as a reminder of just how important he is to this team. If that injury had been serious, it would've totally overshadowed what was otherwise a great day for Pitt. Fortunately for the Panthers, it was not serious. Boyd suffered a dislocated finger, and the sense I'm getting from talking to some people around the team is that, if the game had been closer, he could've come back out for the second half. He practiced Sunday and should be pretty much 100 percent for Boston College Friday night.
Manasseh Garner only had two catches for 24 yards, so while he'll still likely be a big part of this offense, it's hard to take too much from Saturday. The one thing I think we can say is that Ronald Jones will have a role on the offense this year. He caught a team-high three passes for 33 yards, and was on the field a good amount, even early on in the game.
Tight ends: Really not a whole lot from the tight ends in this game. Scott Orndoff was on the receiving end of Voytik's second touchdown pass, and looks back to being a good red zone threat after missing the end of last season. As I mentioned before, Jaymar Parrish was also wide open on that play, and could've caught that touchdown pass. In all, that looked like a play and package that could be an effective way to use the tight ends in the red zone (as long as Voytik hits the wide open guy from now on).
Offensive line: This was an interesting unit to watch Saturday, as Pitt rotated through offensive linemen quite a bit Saturday. Some of this came late in the game when the goal was to get the young players some experience, but they also did some shuffling early in the game. On just the third drive of the game, when Pitt was only up 14-0, Jaryd Jones-Smith came into the game at left tackle, with Adam Bisnowaty shifting in to left guard and Dorian Johnson coming off the field. They stuck with this unit through most of the second quarter and into the third, before putting Johnson back out there at left guard and moving Bisnowaty back to left tackle. Chryst said this is something Pitt will likely continue to do moving forward, which goes against what both he and offensive line coach Jim Hueber have said in the past, that they like to find five starters and stick with them. Chryst said after the game that, basically, if Pitt has six linemen worthy of playing time, they're going to play six linemen. Right now, it looks like a question of whether the staff likes Jones-Smith or Johnson out there on the field more.
As far as the line's performance Saturday, it's hard to draw too much from a matchup against such a physically overmatched opponent. The united certainly looked good, but definitely wasn't perfect. The biggest question still out there is whether or not the line has improved in pass protection against good opponents, which was its biggest struggle last year. Since Pitt wasn't in many passing situations Saturday (plus Delaware's pass rush wasn't much of a threat), that's still a valid concern.
The one thing Chryst and players have said about the offensive line's performance is that they were "on the edge" a lot. According to Hueber, that basically means that there were instances where the body positioning and footwork wasn't exactly on point. It's a minor detail, but something the line can clean up moving forward.
Defensive line: This is another unit that's a little tough to judge after one game because the defensive linemen held such a decisive physical advantage over their competition, but — like the team as a whole — it's hard to ask for a better performance. The line held Delaware to 1.1 yards per carry, and never let the Blue Hens get any sort of push along their offensive front. It's also important to note that the line (and defense as a whole) didn't ever seemed fooled by any of the screens or counter plays that Delaware tried to run, especially after it became evident that Delaware was going to have no luck moving forward in a more conventional sense.
This game was also a plus for the defensive line because Pitt was able to work a lot of guys into the rotation Saturday. Redshirt freshman Luke Maclean made his Pitt debut — even playing a decent amount early on in the game — and had four tackles, including three solo. He's a guy that will probably have to give at least solid spot play this year to give David Durham and Shakir Soto some breathers every once in a while at defensive end.
And speaking of Durham, he notched his first career sack in the first quarter Saturday. On that play, he actually rushed from an inside position since Pitt was in its nickel defense (Rori Blair was next to him, outside on the right side). Durham used one speed move to get past Delaware's left guard and had a free run to the quarterback. He negated it by picking up a celebration penalty for following Jay Z's advice and getting some dirt off his shoulders, but it's hard to fault Durham too much for that. Celebration penalties are pretty inane in general, and even worse when applied as inconsistently as they are.
Linebackers: This unit equaled its 2013 total with two interceptions Saturday. The first one, by Todd Thomas early in the second quarter, came on a play that really took three defenders to make happen. First, Ray Vinopal bumped the intended receiver off his route (admittedly, Vinopal probably got away with a penalty here, bumping Delaware's Jalen Randolph out of bounds more than five yards past the line of scrimmage). Regardless, Anthony Gonzalez did a good job getting pressure on Blue Hens' quarterback Trent Hurley, who just lofted the ball up to where he thought his receiver would be (but wasn't). From there, Thomas had one of the easiest interceptions he'll ever make.
The second interception was just a bad throw by Hurley to a guy who was tightly covered. Matt Galambos was blanketing the receiver, and Hurley's throw basically hit him right in the chest. Galambos probably could've had a touchdown, but admitted it had been a while since he had the ball in his hands. Instead, he trucked Hurley and set the Panthers up for a touchdown on the next play.
One other thing I noted Saturday was that Bam Bradley played pretty extensively at linebacker for Pitt early on in this game. Even though he's not a "starter" on the depth chart, that's something you'll probably see a lot of this season, since Bradley is one of the Panthers' primary nickel linebackers. He finished with two tackles (one tackle for loss). I also noticed Gonzalez in pass coverage a few times Saturday. That was one of his strengths last year (which makes sense, transitioning from safety) and he continues to be Pitt's best pass-defending linebacker.
Secondary: This unit really didn't have a whole lot to do Saturday. The game was so out of hand so early, Delaware didn't even really try to pass too much (only 16 pass attempts combined between two quarterbacks). When the Blue Hens did throw it, they were not very effective at all. Hurley finished 6of 13 for 19 yards, and Justin Burns was 3 of 3 for 12 yards.
Terrish Webb had the big play for the secondary late in the first quarter when he picked off Hurley over the middle. On that play, Webb did a good job of not biting on Hurley's pump fake to the flat, and then simply made a play in zone coverage on a pretty bad throw from Hurley. It wasn't a tough interception for Webb to make, but one that required good discipline from him in his zone assignment.
Of course, one of the big questions heading into this season was how the secondary would adapt to coach Troy Douglas' more aggressive scheme. Because Delaware was so ineffective, it's difficult to really say, but the Panthers certainly looked more aggressive (see Vinopal bumping the receiver off his route on Thomas' interception). One guy I thought had a pretty nice game was Lafayette Pitts, who is coming off a down year last year. There was one play that stood out to me late in the second quarter on 3rd-and-7. Pitts started the play backed off in man-to-man coverage, but closed very quickly once the ball was in the air and, rather than playing the man, played the ball and broke up the pass. The alignment and coverage isn't necessarily different than anything the Panthers did last year, but the attitude of going to attack the ball rather than letting the receiver make the catch and tackling him is something that Douglas has been preaching.
Special teams: Lots and lots of extra points (and one missed one). That's probably the most accurate description of Pitt's special teams on Saturday. Sophomore kicker Chris Blewitt missed his seventh extra point attempt of the day, but I don't think that's any real cause for alarm. He didn't attempt any field goals.
Redshirt freshman punter Ryan Winslow made his Pitt debut Saturday, and had two punts, one landing at the Delaware 20 and one really nice one that stopped at the Delaware 4-yard line.
I thought kickoffs were interesting to watch because Blewitt's first one was returnable right at the goal line, then the second one went out of bounds for a penalty. After that, five of his next eight kickoffs (yeah, he kicked off a lot) went for touchbacks. It's almost as if he tried to place the ball to set up a return early, but after the penalty started to play a little bit safer and just kick the ball as far as he can. I get the philosophy of trying to place the ball at or near the goal line to let your coverage team go make a play, but there's also a school of thought that just says to kick it deep and let the opponent take the ball at the 25-yard line.
In terms of the return game, Boyd didn't take long to remind everyone how special a talent he is. The first time he touched the ball Saturday, he returned a punt 35 yards. Of course, he also got hurt on a punt return, which raises a question that's been out there all of training camp: How much do you use Boyd on punt returns? There are certainly two schools of thought, but Chryst said after the game that the injury isn't going to stop him from putting Boyd back there. Basically, Pitt's best chance to win is with Boyd having the ball in his hands as much as possible, and punt returns are another opportunity to do that.
Plus, the other options Saturday didn't look all that great. Kevin Weatherspoon fumbled one of his four opportunities, and didn't do much with the other three (nine total yards). It'll be interesting to see who's back there (if it's not Boyd) Friday night.
Coaching: This was one where there really isn't a whole lot — if anything — to look at from an in-game coaching perspective. Run the ball up the middle, then do it again, then again. Maybe work in a playaction pass once in a while to keep things interesting.
I think the staff deserves credit, though, for getting the team mentally prepared to play this game. Obviously, everyone knows what happened the last time Pitt opened up with an FCS opponent. This year's team had a much sharper mental focus heading into the game, and that was evident Saturday. Even beyond that, keeping the players engaged throughout the game so that they didn't let up is something that could serve this team well down the road. It would have been easy for the Pitt players to assume this game was over at halftime (which it was) and coast their way to, say, a 49-20 win. Instead, both the offense and defense kept their foot on the pedal (so to speak, they did get the backups in the game and run the clock a lot) and ensure this game was a full 60 minutes of domination. That's not much against Delaware, but look at a game like Navy last season. Pitt was up by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter and some players admitted they thought they had the game won. Instead, the Midshipmen came back and won the game late. The mindset Pitt took against the Blue Hens in the second half should help them in slightly closer games down the road.