What We Learned About the Panthers from Pittsburgh Football vs. Iowa
Saturday's nonconference contest between the Panthers (1-0, 3-1) and Iowa lost luster because one team had been disappointing—and that team, for once, was not Pitt. However, it must live with and learn from disappointment after the Hawkeyes (0-0, 3-1) escaped Heinz Field with a 24-20 win, denying the Panthers their first 4-0 start since before the stadium was completed.
Nobody expected Iowa to make the inaugural College Football Playoff this year, but it was thought to have at least a coin-flip chance of reaching the Big Ten Championship Game. The Hawkeyes still have their full conference slate ahead, beginning Saturday at Purdue, and they can certainly feel better about their chances after shaking off that Cy-Hawk Trophy bungling and improving upon tepid performances against Northern Iowa and Ball State.
The Panthers, in contrast, entered this season with modest expectations that were raised early. They began by dominating Delaware and then took a conference win out of Boston College that gained quality when BC got up off the mat and shocked No. 9 USC. They, unlike Iowa, survived their Week 3 scare when they tapped Florida International on the shoulder and reminded them they're Florida International.
But is their confidence shaken after failing to put away the Hawkeyes?
Let's review what we learned about Pitt after it tasted defeat for the first time in 2014.
1. "The Hammer" Can't Be Nailed
Iowa entered Week 4 with one of the country's leading run defenses, and it did not let Pitt tailback James Conner take over the game. But to say the scintillating sophomore played poorly against that unit would be patently unfair:
#Pitt’s James Conner w/155 yards on 29 carries in loss. He’s just 8th FBS player w/5 straight 150+ yard games since 2004. Only 3 have 6+.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 20, 2014
Conner has already rushed for more yards (85) than any other rusher against Iowa this season.— Pitt Football (@GoPittFootball) September 20, 2014
The Hawkeyes allowed two touchdown runs to Pitt: a one-yarder by Conner, and a 14-yard dart up the middle by freshman Chris James that was set up mostly by Conner. That's two more than they had allowed all season.
Conner has repeatedly hailed fellow sophomore Tyler Boyd as the nation's best player at his position, and Boyd may strengthen his case over time:
Tyler Boyd tied Larry Fitzgerald for fastest to 100 receptions (17 games). Boyd has 106 career catches, Larry had 101 after 17 games.— Pitt Football (@GoPittFootball) September 20, 2014
In the meantime, it's fitting that other national media like Sports Illustrated are tooting Conner's horn for a change; he has already run for 699 yards and nine TDs.
He ranks first in the FBS in each of those categories, and he's off to the best start to a season by any Pitt running back in history, even Tony Dorsett. He's for real, and he's going to get better.
In the famous words of Pittsburgh's own Joe Flaherty, "Ooh...scary!"
2. A Secondary Concern
Iowa receiver/specialist Damond Powell had probably seen better first halves. Despite beating double coverage, he gifted an interception to Lafayette Pitts on his team's first offensive series, and then fumbled a returnable kick that left the Hawkeyes with unfavorable field position late in the second quarter.
Then, in the third quarter, Powell pulled a Lloyd Christmas and totally redeemed himself. His highlight-reel catch provided the spark Iowa needed.
It came to fruition because head coach Kirk Ferentz had the wherewithal to pick on Pitt's secondary, which might be the Panthers' most glaring weakness through four games. Although those players immediately embraced new secondary coach Troy Douglas in the offseason, they suffered through obvious growing pains in Week 4.
Pitt just needs more proven playmakers back there, and Douglas even went on record saying so to gathered media during training camp. Pitts, a junior, has leveled off since a very promising freshman season, and defensive captain Ray Vinopal is the only senior listed on the latest two-deep.
They struggled to get off the field in the game's crucial moments. Tight end Henry Krieger-Coble was wide open for his game-tying touchdown on 4th-and-2 late in the first quarter. On Iowa's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, which began with a pass interference call against cornerback Reggie Mitchell, the Hawkeyes converted on a 3rd-and-7 and on 4th-and-1 twice.
"A lot of it defensively could be attributed to eye control and eye discipline. The first touchdown they had was just that, eyes and holding true to your assignment, and it didn’t happen," Paul Chryst said at his weekly press conference. "I thought [Iowa] did a good job. They ran the ball well, so they had some manageables. But that 3rd-and-longer one, I thought that was a big play."
This week Pitt welcomes Akron (1-2), which has made progress under head coach Terry Bowden, for a 1:30 p.m. EDT nonconference game on ESPN3. Junior quarterback Kyle Pohl, who averages a healthy 21.33 completions per game and ranks No. 3 on the school's career yardage list, leads the Zips offense.
"There’s a lot of those things just in how we’re playing the technique and trusting the technique that are correctable and need to be corrected," Chryst said.
3. Don't "Pass" the Buck Yet
This one hurt the Panthers and their fans. However, it shouldn't hurt as badly as some of their other defeats under Chryst. This wasn't Youngstown State redux. Ultimately, Pitt played on even terms with an evenly matched opponent, and it lost on correctable plays, particularly in the passing game.
Leading 17-14 in the third quarter, the Panthers faced a 3rd-and-14 from the Iowa 23-yard line when Chad Voytik connected with Ronald Jones out to the left. Jones was forced out of bounds after a 12-yard gain.
Had Voytik hit him in the numbers instead of leaving that throw short, and by that same token, had Jones not cut short his route to make that catch, Pitt would have had a 1st-and-goal, instead of having to settle for a Chris Blewitt field goal.
On the Panthers' next possession they were left with another long third down, this time deep in their own territory, on which Voytik missed Manasseh Garner. Pitt punted to Iowa, which promptly began what would prove to be the game-winning drive.
Voytik also missed Garner—and at least one other apparently open man—on 3rd-and-4 from the Iowa 46 on the Panthers' first offensive series of the game, a disappointing waste of good field position.
The redshirt sophomore lost for the first time as Pitt's full-time quarterback, but, on paper, Voytik's losing effort was still a respectable one. He completed two-thirds of his attempts, and the Panthers outgained Iowa 250-178 in the air.
Voytik is athletic enough to lead this offense, but he needs to bring the technical side of his game around to become a better leader. Things can be done to expedite that process and prevent bad plays, like the interception that ended the game.
Specifically, Voytik can spread the ball around better. Even more specifically, he can take advantage of his team's depth at tight end, a group that was completely ignored Saturday. Granted, Tyler Boyd makes himself an easy target, but Voytik needs to weigh other options in high-leverage situations when Boyd draws professional-caliber coverage like the Hawkeyes' Greg Mabin provided.
It has been clear through deeds and words that Voytik is the right man for the job. He's seen meaningful duty in a grand total of five games at Pitt, and, like the rest of the team's voluminous collection of underclassmen, he just needs time to improve.
4. The Coastal Is Still Clear
Pitt fans shouldn't get their hopes up for an ACC title yet. Defending national champion Florida State has retained its team-to-beat status, largely because Clemson saw a window of opportunity slam right in its face in Tallahassee. Currently, however, it's not insane to think anyone, including Pitt, can still win the Coastal Division.
Life has evened out for Virginia Tech, loser of two straight at home since the upset it pulled off in Columbus. North Carolina was embarrassed by surging East Carolina. Miami, also, is not without warts, as it demonstrated at Nebraska. Virginia, after playing No. 7 UCLA competitively and beating No. 21 Louisville, fell at No. 21 BYU over the weekend.
The only unbeaten teams in the Coastal Division, Georgia Tech and defending champion Duke, have yet to enter the crux of their respective schedules. All the aforementioned ACC teams have yet to face the Panthers.
"Everything we want to do is still intact," safety Ray Vinopal said. "We can still achieve our goals—win the ACC, be successful in our ACC schedule and go to a nice bowl game. It's a 12-game season, and we've still got eight ahead of us."
The Panthers resume conference play two Saturdays from now, when they visit the Cavaliers for a 7:30 p.m. EDT game. If they respond with consecutive wins before the pivotal stretch of their schedule—a three-game ACC homestand that begins Thursday, Oct. 16 against the Hokies—the sting of Saturday's loss will subside.
Extra Point: It's Not How You Start...
Last Saturday marked the six-year anniversary of a Pitt win at Heinz Field over Iowa in which it shortened the game with its star running back and preserved a tenuous lead with clutch defense. The Panthers began the rematch by revving Conner's engine and holding Iowa in check after an early score, only to see the Hawkeyes adjust to Conner and give them a taste of their own medicine.
Prior to Saturday, you'd only have to go back to the end of last season to find the Panthers' last home loss. In fact, they dropped their final two home contests of the 2013 campaign, to ACC rivals North Carolina and Miami.
In both games, they started poorly, spotting their opponents early and comfortable leads, and did not recover until it was too late. This time, Pitt got the start it wanted, and it was in control at halftime. Then it lost control in the second half.
Saturday's game, like the UNC and Miami affairs, was an opportunity for the Panthers to continue building upon the national attention they've received. For this program to evolve, it must learn to seize those opportunities.
"I was encouraged by the attitude in the locker room after the game. Compared to previous years, you could tell it was bothering people. You could tell people cared," Vinopal said. "You could tell people are going to learn from this, and that's the most important thing."
The Panthers can prove it with a 60-minute performance this Saturday and a 4-1 record entering Charlottesville.
Highlights courtesy of the ACC Digital Network. Statistics courtesy of University of Akron Athletic Communications and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.