Oct 4, 2014; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (24) carries the ball as Virginia Cavaliers defensive end Eli Harold (7) chases in the first quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
As you probably know well by now, the Virginia Tech Hokies are taking on the Pittsburgh Panthers in a big ACC Coastal game at Heinz Field tomorrow night on ESPN. With the big ACC Coastal tomorrow night, we thought we would give you a quality insight into the Pittsburgh Panthers.
We were lucky enough to have FWAA(Football Writers Association of America) member Anson Whaley join us to give us some insight into Pittsburgh football. Anson is also the editor of the Pittsburgh Panthers’ website Cardiac Hill.
Now, here is the insight that we received from Anson Whaley plus a prediction.
Q: What makes James Conner so good?
A: To me, it’s his combination of size and footwork. I don’t know that I’d call Conner fast, but he hits holes hard and for his size, really can avoid tacklers. The size is probably his greatest asset and he’s just a bruising back. He’s faded in some second halves of games, but he’s the kind of back that can wear down opposing defenses and then take advantage.
I’ve made this point a few times this season, but I also think the additional reps he’s gotten are making a difference. In five of the team’s first six games, Conner has gotten at least 20 carries. He only had one such game in the regular season last year, splitting carries with Isaac Bennett. Pitt has used Bennett and freshman Chris James a little, but this has been Conner’s ship. It’s just easier to get into a rhythm when you’re consistently getting carries.
Q: Can Chad Voytik get the job done if Conner is slowed down once again?
A: That’s really the million dollar question. Voytik has been up and down this year and while he’s not doing all that badly for a first-year underclassman starter, he’s struggled with consistency. What should worry Pitt fans the most is that the Panthers will face a very good defense in Virginia Tech’s.
Voytik can make plays and maybe enough to win the game. But this isn’t an offense that is likely going to be able to rely on him to carry the team if Conner isn’t producing. Pitt can win without Conner playing well, but will need some other things to fall their way – i.e. the turnover battle, a few big plays by Tyler Boyd, etc.
Sep 27, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Tyler Boyd (23) runs after a pass reception against Akron Zips cornerback Kris Givens (21) during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Akron Zips won 21-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Q: Do you think Tyler Boyd will have any success against the Hokies?
A: Boyd’s a candidate to have success against anybody, to be honest. That said, he was held in check by Virginia Tech last year and hasn’t had quite the same impact this season as he did in 2013. A lot of that has to do with the quarterback play as Tom Savage went to the NFL, but some of it probably has to do with teams paying more attention to him.
Boyd can break out for a big play against any team – that much is clear. But I’m not sure I’d exactly predict a huge game out of him, since we’re halfway through the season and he’s had only one 100-yard game so far.
Q: Is James Conner at defensive end a bluff or is it serious?
A: A week ago, Conner being used on defense (as was expected in the offseason) seemed like a pipe dream since he hadn’t even taken a snap there this year. But this week he said he would line up at defensive end, so we’ll see.
I’m not sure it’s a bluff as Chryst and company are generally pretty straightforward. Plus, there’s just not much to be gained by making the Hokies thinking he’ll line up there. He only played a handful of snaps last year in the bowl game, so it’s not as if there’s a ton of film to analyze.
I don’t know – Conner says he’s lining up there, so I don’t have much reason to doubt him. And Pitt wanting him on the defensive line makes sense for a few reasons. For one thing, they haven’t gotten a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and for another, backup Luke Maclean is banged up and not expected to play.
Plans always change so if Conner doesn’t get any time there, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world. But if I had to guess, I’d say that he’ll be out there for at least a few plays. I’d be surprised if Pitt used him a ton because that was one of Chryst’s biggest concerns this offseason (Conner’s workload). Considering he’s not played there yet this season, I imagine they’ll break him in a little slowly.
Q: After having Aaron Donald last season, does Pittsburgh have a big time playmaker on defense?
A: Not really. The linebackers are solid and have been the best unit on defense. They’re led by a couple of seniors on the outside in Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez that have played well. Thomas, in particular, can be a big of a playmaker, but there’s no one even remotely close to Donald’s level – especially on the line.
The secondary has really had some issues and is prone to giving up a big play or two per game. Even the modest quarterbacks that Pitt has faced have had success against the Panthers.
Q: What is your prediction for the game and why?
A: This is really as close to a pick ’em as it gets without actually being one. Virginia Tech is favored by about two points (as of Tuesday night) and if the game were on the road, I’d have little trouble picking Virginia Tech. I’ve been back and forth on this all week but I might actually take the Panthers for a few reasons. I’m not sure I buy the argument that the Hokies can’t win in Pittsburgh – dating back to the Big East days as a point of reference seems a little silly, after all. But even beyond that, there are some reasons to like the Panthers here.
Pitt gets the game at home and road weeknight games are always tough. I’m also not that impressed with Michael Brewer and think the Panthers can force him into a pick or two since he’s thrown at least one in every game. Another big factor for me is how Pitt played in the second half of their last game against Virginia.
They got down big early, but the Panthers outscored Virginia 17-0 in the second half. They resembled the team that started 3-0 and was beating up on opponents and that’s encouraging. Lastly, silly as it sounds, since I expect a close game, Pitt also has an advantage in the kicking game. While Virginia Tech has struggled with field goals, Pitt’s Chris Blewitt (yep, that’s his name) is a perfect 9-9 on the year. That could just end up being the difference.
We’ll see, but if nothing else, I like Pitt’s chances to keep things close.
Once again, we would like to thank Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill for giving up his insight into Pittsburgh football.