Pitt vs. New Mexico: 5 Keys to Victory for the Panthers
The phrase "break a leg" is common in the performing arts, usually uttered to whom one wishes good luck before showtime. When the curtain was raised on its first season in the ACC, Pitt did not break a leg, but rather it stubbed its collective toe on the big stage against defending champion Florida State.
Now New Mexico (1-1) is on the playbill, leaving the Mountain West Conference behind for its first-ever visit to Heinz Field to take on the Panthers at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. Moon Area High School alumnus Bob Davie returns home on the heels of a 42-35 overtime victory at UTEP that saw his running game dominate.
At the very least, Pitt must hope its disappointing opener served as an exercise for chasing the Lobos and Davie's gun triple option attack. At the very most, the Panthers want Saturday to serve as a rite of passage for its promising freshmen, and a healthy change of pace for an offense that largely sputtered beyond its first drive of the new season.
Here are five things the Panthers must do to even their record...
1. Don't "Desert" Your Backfield
A team that only manages one offensive touchdown doesn't normally have much to crow about. However, the Panthers, throughout this week, insisted their downfall on Labor Day was not physical.
"We get good pass [protection] from our ends. If you just stop for a second and think, outside of the mental mistakes, there really wasn’t people coming free on the quarterbacks till late in the game," offensive line coach Jim Hueber said. "You can’t watch the first quarter through the second quarter and not think we weren’t being physical in the running game."
The problem for Pitt two Mondays ago was, once FSU settled down and forced mistakes by Tom Savage—mistakes on which it capitalized—the Panthers had to abandon their running game, which did yeoman's work early in the contest.
Defensively, New Mexico has not fared well against the run. Pitt junior Isaac Bennett looks healthy, and pure freshman James Conner showed guts by matching his 36 net rushing yards in a losing effort.
Unlike that other football team that plays on the North Shore, being steadfast and simplifying via their tailbacks might pay rich dividends for Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph Saturday.
2. How "Bout Dat" New Guy?
Apropos of my emphasis on Pitt's running game was the play of newcomer Tyler Boyd against the Seminoles. On just three plays that amassed 54 yards, he looked just as untouchable in blue and gold as he once did in the orange and black of the "Bout Dat" Clairton Bears.
When all else fails, a coach should put the game at the mercy of his best player. In any event, Chryst needs to concoct more ways to give the ball to Boyd, who debuted with 151 all-purpose yards—whether it's running off-tackle, returning kicks, or catching passes across from mentor and redshirt senior wide receiver Devin Street.
"We would absolutely like to give him more touches," Chryst said after that 41-13 loss Sept. 2. "We're trying to find ways to get him the ball. He's a good football player and I was impressed with the way he handled everything."
First impressions being what they are, Boyd looks exactly like the ace prospect for which fans hoped. The collegiate game comes to him organically, and he's already put some good stuff on film against great athletes. Imagine what damage he might do versus a less reputable defense if given the chance?
3. Put the Offense on Easy Street
One of the things Boyd talked about after the loss to Florida State was the need for quarterback Tom Savage to continue spreading the ball. Street posted a single-game personal best 141 yards on six receptions against the 'Noles, and if he is targeted consistently, that could open some pasture for Boyd.
Furthermore, Street won't have to contend with an army of potential all-conference defensive backs this time. In their secondary the Lobos have three defenders who have barely played their positions at the FBS level, including a junior college transfer (safety David Guthrie) and a converted wide receiver (cornerback Saqwan Edwards).
Not only should the Panthers try to balance their attack, they should let Street spearhead that attack. This matchup lends itself well to another career day for the former All-Big East selection.
4. Pack Mentality vs. Lobos' Passing Game
Jameis Winston, who enjoyed one of the best debuts in recent history at Pitt's expense, will never be confused with New Mexico quarterback Clayton Mitchem. But they do have one thing in common: a lack of major college experience.
That is why the Panthers cannot repeat common mistakes when Mitchem, who has relieved Cole Gautsche since the latter suffered a head injury in the Lobos' opener against Texas-San Antonio, takes the field.
How can the Panthers best contain the option? Hit the quarterback, pure and simple. Two weeks ago, they didn't do that nearly enough.
"Any time you face an option, you have to stay true to your responsibilities. And there are some things that carry over from the first game. We've got to tackle better," Chryst said at his weekly press conference. "I think we've got to challenge their receivers. We've got to be able to finish with some of our pressures. We've got to make sure we're assignment-sound. Players need to trust that the guy next to them is going to do his job so that they don’t have to overextend and can do their job.
"If everyone does their job, then we'll be in good shape."
This is the type of QB Pitt can frustrate into mistakes. Mitchem has run for 78 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, but he's only completed half his passes.
Coming off a rough night against the Seminoles, improvements from linebackers Anthony Gonzalez (pictured above) and Shane Gordon beyond mere stat-padding will be key.
5. Sink Their Carrier
New Mexico, as previously noted, runs a gun triple option. Redshirt senior and featured back Kasey Carrier was a teammate of Pitt backup quarterback Trey Anderson at Pearland (Texas) High School. According to Anderson, the option they ran in high school was much more pass-happy than Coach Davie's playbook, so expect Carrier to carry the Lobos on his back.
Through two games he is the leading rusher in the nation with 345 yards, having scored four times and averaged over 5.5 yards per attempt.
Florida State's dynamic backfield did not do major damage to Pitt, but with Winston at the trigger, it didn't have to. This time the Panthers can and should zero in a little more on the opposition's ground attack.
Once again, Saturday is as good a day as any for the Panthers' linebackers, to a man, to pick up their game. Plus, a defensive line featuring Ohio State transfer David Durham at one end, and tackle Aaron Donald, a member of five preseason watch lists, gets a chance to shine.
If Pitt makes the rest of that team beat them, the Lobos will have a difficult time staying in this game.
One thought I shared when previewing the 2013 Panthers was that, after last season, no result would shock me. It's been a little less than a year since the last time they really ran away and hid from a non-conference opponent (bonus points if you didn't have to Google Gardner-Webb's mascot), but in a larger view, it hasn't happened much. The best-case scenario Saturday would be for Pitt to give fans what they want: consistency on offense and a defense that returns to form and flexes its muscles against a largely one-dimensional opponent.
If nothing else, Pitt will get a taste of what awaits it midseason when it faces Navy and ACC Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech on the road back-to-back weekends. Both those teams run the option, though, statistically, entering this weekend, New Mexico does it better.
With conference play resuming next Saturday afternoon at Duke, the team's first road game of the season, the Panthers, this Saturday, need to prove the adage about the size of the leap from game one to game two.
That didn't happen last year between games against Youngstown State and Cincinnati. It didn't happen the year before that, between games against Buffalo and Maine. It didn't happen the year before that, between games against Utah and New Hampshire.
Chryst and his players need to make it happen.
(All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.)