Pitt opened up ACC play with a 30-20 victory against Boston College Friday night. The Panthers showed that their rushing performance in the season opener against Delaware might not have been a fluke, piling up 302 yards on the ground against the Eagles. Running back James Conner was the star, with 213 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. The Panthers faltered a bit in closing out the win, but they'll still take a 2-0 record into Miami when they play Florida International this Saturday. Now, a look at the positions...
Quarterback: Once again, Chad Voytik only had to keep it simple as Pitt ran over an overmatched opponent. He finished 10 of 20 for 111 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. As I wrote after the game, I think there are still some questions about Voytik's viability as a true game-changing quarterback. He's fine when Pitt is running the ball well, but he has yet to show that he can pick apart a defense through the air. His deep ball accuracy has always been a bit of a concern, and that showed again Friday night as he missed a few long passes to open receivers. On the interception, he simply stared down Tyler Boyd the entire route on a 3rd-and-5, and didn't see the linebacker dropping into zone coverage. It makes sense that Voytik wants to get the ball to Boyd, but that's a young quarterback mistake that he needs to try and avoid in the future.
Now, Voytik should also get some credit for the way he bounced back after the pick. Pitt pounded the ball down the field, but then facing 3rd-and-10 from the Boston College 15-yard line, he floated up a touchdown pass to Boyd.
The most impressive part of Voytik's performance Friday was probably the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. With less than a minute left, Voytik completed three consecutive passes to move the Panthers from the Boston College 36-yard line into the end zone. The second of those three was a beautiful 22-yard pass to Manasseh Garner down the left sideline, which may have been Voytik's best throw of the season. He even made a smart play on the touchdown, when it looked like he wanted to play it safe and hit the swing pass out of the backfield. Given the situation (no timeouts, 24 seconds left) that could have been disastrous. Instead, he held on a second longer and found Boyd in the end zone.
Running backs: James Conner. Rise, lather, repeat. As I mentioned earlier, Conner had 35 carries against the Eagles for 213 yards and a touchdown. Just like in the Delaware game, he ran tough and physical, so that even when there wasn't a ton of space open up front, he was able to gain five yards just from plowing ahead into the pile. Conner said that he could tell as the game wore on, Boston College's linebackers and safeties seemed a little less eager to line him up and hit him after they had been run over a few times. That's really when Conner is at his best, pounding run after run to wear defenses down.
Now, there's the other side of that, too. It's certainly not a sustainable model for Conner to get 35 carries a game. Chryst said he wasn't concerned about the high workload, but I can't imagine Conner will get this many carries per game moving forward. Conner admitted after the game that he started wearing down a bit towards the end of the game, and you could see it in his yardage totals. He stopped churning out eight yards a carry and started going for one to three. Still, in a game that was still relatively close, it's hard to fault the coaches for getting him the ball as they did.
Since Conner got so much work, it's hard to judge too much about the other running backs. Chris James had five carries for 20 yards, and looks to be the clear No. 2 first/second-down back.
Wide receivers: Tyler Boyd put up better numbers this week than he did in his injury-shortened opener, with five catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed twice for 23 yards, including one end-around to kick-start the Panthers' scoring drive at the end of the first half. Of course, Boyd's most impressive catch of the day was his first touchdown grab. On that play, he was lined up in the slot to Voytik's right, and ran pretty much a simple fade to the corner of the end zone with a Boston College safety draped all over him. The safety never turned around on the throw, though, and Boyd did an excellent job of high-pointing the football and going up over the defender. He also showed some good concentration to come down with it even as it juggled around in his hands a bit. The thing that struck me about this catch was the amount of body control it took for Boyd to go up, get the ball and come down with possession while a defender was draped all over him. There are a lot of reasons he's as good as he is, but superb body control and strong hards are certainly two of them.
Beyond Boyd, the only other catch by a receiver came on Voytik's pass to Garner down the sideline at the end of the first half. It looked like Boston College's defenders were playing relatively physical with the receivers, so that may have played a role in slowing down the passing game. Put it simply, beyond Boyd, the passing game wasn't really working for Pitt Friday night. The good news is that Boyd is good enough to make up for that.
Tight ends: We did see a couple more throws to the tight ends this week than we did against Delaware. J.P. Holtz finished with three catches for 17 yards, which isn't too remarkable, but let's remember that the passing game as a whole wasn't exactly on point Friday night. On the Panthers' second drive of the game, they tried to run a tight end middle screen to Holtz on 3rd-and-20, but I could see it developing pretty slowly from the press box, and Boston College appeared to be able to do the same from the field and they shut it down for just two yards. I didn't particularly care for that play call there, because that's a play that has been successful for Pitt in the past (and can be in the future) but they used it there in a situation with a low probability for success and, basically, tip their hand on it for the rest of the game. Third-and-long like that is a situation where the defense is likely expecting something like a screen pass or draw, so they're not fooled when it sets up that way. The tight end middle screen is usually more effective on first or second down, when the defense is playing more aggressively. It's also a little bit of a gadget play so that, when Pitt runs it once, it's hard to imagine them pulling it out again now that Boston College has seen it. I get that you want to do something low-risk, high-reward in that scenario, but I think a more conventional screen pass or draw would've been the better call.
Offensive line: OK, raise your hand if you thought Pitt would have the ACC offensive lineman of the week for each of the first two weeks this season? Put your hand down, Coach Chryst.
The offensive line looked solid, though probably not spectacular, Friday night. In many ways, though it wasn't as dominant, I came away more impressed with the performance against Boston College than the one against Delaware.
First and foremost, of course, is that Boston College is a much better team than Delaware. They Eagles have some legitimate guys on the defensive line and Pitt was able, for the most part, to create running lanes and give Voytik some time to throw.
Pitt had some pass protection issues early on that Voytik was able to help mitigate with his mobility, but those seemed to get better as the game wore on. The Panthers started the game with Adam Bisnowaty at left tackle and Dorian Johnson at left guard, but switched to Jaryd Jones-Smith at left tackle, with Bisnowaty moving inside, after two series. From then on, it seemed like a pretty regular rotation every two series.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the pass protection seemed to get better when Jones-Smith came onto the field. I know Johnson was the highly-recruited five-star, but right now, Pitt's offensive line just looks better when it's Jones-Smith at left tackle and Bisnowaty at left guard. I think it'll be a rotation again this week, but if things don't change, I would start to wonder if or when Jones-Smith will get the starting left tackle job.
Finally, we should touch on Artie Rowell's season-ending ACL injury. He got hurt midway through the second quarter on a play where he was pulling to the right on a run for Chris James. There didn't appear to be any significant contact, and it just looks like Rowell's left leg buckled underneath him on the turf. Gabe Roberts came in to play center the rest of the game, and will likely start Saturday. Even though center is an extremely difficult position to replace, I think Pitt might actually be OK here. Roberts played well Friday and, if you remember, was the front-runner to win the job in 2013 before Rowell took it in training camp. The coaches are certainly high on his talent, but he's battled injuries for most of his career. I think the hope is that, like Bisnowaty, the new strength and conditioning program has ameliorated Roberts' injury issues and he can stay healthy the rest of the way. If not, Pitt will have to turn to redshirt freshman Alex Officer, who certainly has potential, but doesn't appear to be quite ready for a starting role yet.
Defensive line: Pitt's defense as a whole played pretty well Friday night, notwithstanding the sloppiness at the end of the game, and the defensive line is no exception. Darryl Render and K.K. Mosley-Smith were solid in the middle, racking up 3.5 tackles apiece (Render had one tackle for loss), and limiting the Eagles to 4.2 yards per carry. When you factor in the fact that Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy had a 51-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, that's pretty impressive. The Panthers limited Murphy on the ground for the most part, which is indicative of good, disciplined play from the defensive line. Even on plays (especially early in the game) where Murphy was able to get some yards, Pitt had guys in the right spots, they just didn't make tackles. On the 51-yard run, for instance, Render took the running back and cornerback Reggie Mitchell just whiffed on a tackle that set Murphy free.
There were also some encouraging signs at the defensive end spot Friday. Shakir Soto had 2.5 tackles, including one for a loss. Freshman Rori Blair also had a nice game Friday night, playing a good number of snaps (mostly in pass-rushing situations) and picking up a key sack on a third down early in the fourth quarter. Blair's emergence — even just as a pass-rushing option — is a positive development at a thin position for the Panthers.
Finally, another game without James Conner getting any work on defense. Obviously, his huge workload on the offensive side of the ball had a lot to do with this, but I also think Blair's performance did as well. If Blair can show that he's effective as a third-down pass rusher, that could allow the coaches to dial back what they expect from Conner on defense.
Linebackers: This another unit that did a good job in shutting down Murphy as a rushing threat Friday night. Redshirt senior Anthony Gonzalez led the Panthers with 6.5 tackles, including a sack early in the third quarter that helped stifle a Boston College drive (Murphy was intercepted on the next play). Gonzalez was blitzing from essentially a stand-up defensive end spot on that play, and just used a nice power move to get past his man and get to Murphy.
We didn't see as much Bam Bradley Friday night as we did against Boston College, but he continued to do some good things when he was on the field. He sacked Murphy in the first quarter to get a key third-down stop and force a punt. On the play, he came from the middle and did a nice job waiting and picking a hole through the line of scrimmage to get to the quarterback and make the sack.
Secondary: This was a pretty interesting game to watch from a secondary perspective. Obviously, the unit as a whole didn't have a whole lot to do since Murphy was so ineffective as a passer, but there are a couple of points worth touching on.
The first would be the increased number of interceptions we've seen so far this season. Pitt has five interceptions so far this year after just eight all of last season. The biggest thing I can point to (and defensive coordinator Matt House alluded to it today) is just a better awareness of the ball in coverage. I don't think this is a case of Pitt playing tighter man-to-man coverage, or anything like that. The defenders are just more constantly aware of the ball, as you saw Friday on Ray Vinopal's interception off a tip from Gonzalez.
The second thing I wanted to discuss from this unit is the play of cornerback Lafayette Pitts. First of all, on Boston College's long touchdown pass, Pitts was not really at fault there because there was supposed to be safety help coming in from over the top that, quite simply, wasn't there. Pitts was playing trail coverage, so he was definitely expecting someone to be there. It didn't look like anyone bit on the playaction, just a busted coverage.
Now, with that being said, I do think it's fair to question whether or not Pitts has improved from last year's admittedly disappointing season. He did get beat a couple of times Friday, and still has yet to flash the potential that we saw from his debut season two years ago. Of course, the only problem there is that Pitt really has no other options. Reggie Mitchell and Avonte Maddox are already playing a ton, so it's not like Pitts is in any real danger of losing his job (even if Maddox takes over that role, Pitts would still have to play extensively at nickel). There's really nothing the Panthers can do but hope he returns to 2012 form.
Special teams: Good night for Chris Blewitt, who made field goals from 49, 42 and 41 yards. Pitt has been very successful getting touchdowns in the red zone this season, but it's nice to have a kicker who can make those kicks if a drive stalls around the 25- or 30-yard line.
The only other thing I would note here is the onside kick that Boston College recovered at the end of the game can be added to the list of things Pitt didn't necessarily do all that well down the stretch. It was a middle kick that the kicker recovered, and it looked like the two Pitt guys in the middle, Gonzalez and Vinopal, didn't necessarily seem prepared to make a play on the ball. The kicking team obviously has to wait until it goes 10 yards, but those two looked like they were doing the same (which they don't have to) rather than attacking and falling on the football. Of course, it didn't end up having any bearing on this game, but might be something to look out for if Pitt is in a closer game and needs to defend against an onside kick.
Coaching: The two coaching points I'd probably look at from this game are the decision to work Conner so heavily (which we already discussed a bit) and the end-of-game sloppiness. First, on Conner, I do understand the simplicity of don't stop what's working, but I also think there's an argument to be made for getting Chris James in there and maybe giving Conner a bit of a breather. He's never going to take himself out of the game, but if Pitt wants to be legitimately good this season, they're going to need Conner in November, too. I'm sure Chryst has a good feel for how much his backs can handle, but it will be interesting to see if Conner gets such a heavy load moving forward.
Second, on the end of the game, Chryst said he didn't feel like it was a "Oh boy we're good now" type of mentality that led to the sloppy ending, but rather a few missed assignments here and there (and one bad snap). When Conner scored in the third quarter to make it 27-7, I thought there was a chance Pitt could totally run away with it and win by 30 points. That, obviously, would have made a much bigger impression. Pitt had absolutely no trouble stepping on Delaware's throat in the opener, but couldn't do it Friday night. I don't necessarily think it's a case like the Navy game last year where the team lost focus down the stretch, but Pitt still has a little bit to prove in closing out wins against good opponents.