We're less than 24 hours from Pitt's biggest game of the season against Iowa. In fact, you could make an argument that this is Paul Chryst's biggest game since he has arrived at Pitt. Sure, there are others up there (Notre Dame in 2012, Florida State last season) but in those cases, Pitt was just a scrappy underdog trying to pull off an upset. Tomorrow, the Panthers are going to have a chance to prove that they are a legitimately good football team and one that's worth top 25 consideration and a divisional contender. As we get ready for the game, here are a few notes from the players and assistants this week...
- Offensive line coach Jim Hueber was pretty blunt when I asked him if there was any common theme throughout the sacks Pitt gave up last week. "Yeah," he said. "Dumbness." After not giving up any in the first two games, Pitt allowed three against the Golden Panthers.
"I think we've proven that we can do good things," Hueber said. "I think we have to eliminate the dumb things that get us in trouble, then throw it out there and see how we match up. We won't know until it's over Saturday, but I'm confident that our kids will go out and play and I think it'll be a good test for us."
- Sticking with some concerns from last Saturday, defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said Pitt's biggest problem in the secondary is "bad eyes." I wrote about it earlier this week, but Douglas said that, basically, with all the young guys the Panthers have back there, they need to work on being more disciplined with their assignments and not giving up big plays.
"Everybody wants to look in the backfield, look in the backfield, look in the backfield," Douglas said. "When they break on a receiver, they want to look at the quarterback. They don't want to cover the guy first. So most of our mistakes are basically made with our eyes, not having our eyes where they're supposed to be an where they're trained to be."
Iowa isn't really a "big play" team the way maybe FIU was, but Douglas cautioned that the Hawkeyes can hit it over the top on playaction if the Pitt defense isn't careful.
"What you worry about is cheating too much playing the run and trying to fit," Douglas said. "The run game and the pass game, it's a team. Secondary guys have got to play the run and in the pass game, the front people have got to rush the passer, the linebackers have got to get their drops. It's everybody. What you worry about is sucking up too hard on the play-action pass and them throwing it over your head."
- Douglas also had some interesting comments on redshirt senior safety Ray Vinopal. Basically, Douglas said Vinopal is thinking a little bit too much on the field right now, and that he just needs to let it go and play football.
He also noted that Vinopal can sometimes give things away on defense, like when he starts creeping up towards the line of scrimmage on a safety blitz.
"He's giving things away as far as what we're trying to do," Douglas said. "If we're spinning a safety down in one-high [coverage], he's cheating his alignment too much because he's got to get there. He doesn't know he can get there if he's just patient with it and that type of deal. He's fine, he'll be fine, we'll get it corrected and he'll be fine."
- Freshman running back Chris James didn't get a single carry against Florida International after he missed what running backs coach John Settle called a simple blitz pickup in the first quarter that allowed FIU to sack Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik for a safety.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, though, said he liked the way James responded in practice this week and should play a role against Iowa tomorrow.
"I think when you've got young guys, those steps that you take as you have experiences, good and bad, you can grow from them," Rudolph said. "He had one that he would like to have back but it's his opportunity now to grow from that and I believe he'll do that."
- Rudolph also said that, despite the heavy workload for James Conner thus far, he still has plenty of faith in all his other running backs.
"I still have all the trust and belief in the world in Isaac and feel the same about Rachid and giving Chris some opportunities," Rudolph said. "That group, I feel great with and they'll push. James knows that he's got the opportunity to run with it and those guys are on his heels and pushing him and that's the way every position should be."
- Speaking of Conner, he said he spoke to former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald this week about how to handle the national attention he's been getting recently. Conner admitted that it went to his head a little bit when he first saw his name bandied about in the Heisman Trophy discussion, but that, after talking with Donald, he's going to take some time off social media until the end of the season.
"He said just stay focused, keep playing ball and those individual awards will come," Conner said. "So really, obviously I'm going to listen to every word he says, so when he tells me to stay focused and keep playing, I'm not thinking about any of that stuff anymore."
- Finally, I thought Voytik had some interesting comments this week about how to use Tyler Boyd in the passing game. In each of the past two games, Voytik has thrown basically a jump ball into the end zone that Boyd has come down with. Voytik said that he needs to do a better job of doing that in other parts of the field.
"He has made me look good in the red zone a lot," Voytik said. "I need to give him more of those plays in the field, I think, because he'll make those plays. I feel like my mentality in the passing game changes in the red zone because you know you have the back of the red zone to kind of be your safe zone, so you can throw it up. But he can make those kinds of plays in the field, too, so I'm looking to give him some more opportunities."
I think the passing game will play a big role in tomorrow's game because, while I think Pitt will be able to run the ball to some degree, they won't be able to bludgeon an opponent on the ground the way they have in every game thus far. That leads to two things: 1) Voytik will probably have to complete some 3rd-and-longs, and, 2) He will have to be good on first and second down, too, to keep the defense honest. The easiest way to do that is to get the ball to Boyd, and I think he realizes that.