Sam Werner covers University of Pittsburgh football for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He was kind enough to answer six questions (well, actually 15, but who is counting?) about the Panthers heading into Thursday's Little Caesears Pizza Bowl. ...
- What is the Pitt mind-set coming into this game? What is the feeling of playing against a MAC school? And how has the fan-base reacted to this game -- especially with ticket sales?
The players are all saying the right things (they're motivated, fired up, etc.) but that's generally worth very little. There is a big difference between finishing the season 7-6 or 6-7, but that was the same case last year when Pitt came out and got routed by Ole Miss in the bowl game.
I do think that two things are helping the Panthers this year: First, the game is much closer to the end of the season. The last three years have ended in the BBVA Compass Bowl, which is in early January. That extra two weeks is more time to let the mind wander. Two, I think Bowling Green earned a lot of respect for what it did against Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship game. Pitt players I've talked to are also very aware that they are underdogs in this game, and that should serve as some extra motivation.
As far as ticket sales go, Pitt has been pretty mum on how they have been going, which generally isn't a great sign. Despite being a drivable game for fans, the combination of timing (day after Christmas), cold-weather destination and non-brand name opponent will probably make for a relatively underwhelming Pitt presence in the stands.
- How would you describe the Panthers' offense? Judging by the statistics, there seems to be a desire to "pound" the ball with the running game while spreading the field with the passing game. Would that be accurate?
That would be accurate in terms of what Pitt would like to do offensively, but there haven't been many games this year where the offense is clicking well enough so that that's actually the case. The first thing Pitt is going to try to do offensively is run the ball with both James Conner and Isaac Bennett. If one (or both) of those guys gets going, that lets them set up everything else.
The biggest issue with Pitt's offense this year has been the pass protection by the offensive line, especially on the edge. The easiest way for Pitt to succeed offensively is to run the ball well enough to that the defense can't afford to send many blitzes off the edge. That also gets the playaction game going. If the run game fails, and Pitt has to rely on five- and seven-step drops for Tom Savage, it will likely end up being a long day for him.
- How are the two top running backs, Isaac Bennett and James Conner, used? And how does Pitt quarterback Tom Savage use his two top receivers, Tyler Boyd and Devin Street?
Bennett is usually the first guy in the game, but Conner has been the more effective runner for most of the season. It's tempting to peg them into the "Thunder" (Conner) and "Lightning" (Bennett) categories, but that wouldn't be totally accurate. Both are pretty good in between the tackles and neither has elite breakaway speed. The biggest difference between the two is that Bennett, as the more experienced back, is a better blocker (meaning he's usually the third-down back) and a bit smarter making his reads. Conner has improved, but still has a tendency to try and break runs outside a little too quickly, rather than just take a three- or four-yard gain up the middle.
At receiver, it looks like Street is probably doubtful for Thursday's game, so that eliminates a major offensive threat for the Panthers. Pitt has some other nice guys (though Kevin Weatherspoon, generally the third receiver, also appears to be out) but Boyd will be the biggest receiving threat. He's a very good route runner for a freshman, and also has good downfield talent. He can get open, even against double-coverage, but the problem has usually been the offensive line protecting Savage long enough for him to do so.
- The Panthers defense seems to have had some "ups" and some "downs" this season. How do you see the Pitt defense having played this season? Is the up-and-down a function of the team's schedule or the players on defense?
I think the defense improved fairly steadily after the Duke debacle (a 58-55 Pitt win) but took a major step back their last time out against Miami. The problem I've seen when the defense struggles is that they are playing too tentatively. First-year defensive coordinator Matt House has mixed in some zone coverages this year that diverged from last year's exclusively man-to-man scheme, and that has drawn a lot of criticism from fans. When the players are confident in their assignments, those coverages can be effective, but when guys have even a split-second of hesitation, that's enough time for a good offense to take advantage.
In the games where the defense struggled, those things tend to snowball. Against Miami, for example, the Hurricanes were up 14-0 barely four minutes in, and that put Pitt's defense on its heels.
- What are the keys to Aaron Donald's success this season? What makes him special? And who are some other Pitt players we should watch for in the game?
The two biggest things for Donald are his lightning-quick first step and his relentless motor. He's so quick off the ball that, even when teams try to double-team him, he's often in the backfield before the second guy can even get there. He's got some of the quickest hands I've ever seen and he knows how to use them (he also brags about his ping pong prowess). That helps him get off blocks sometimes before they even start. He really is a tireless worker and put in a lot of time this offseason to improve on an already strong junior season.
The other guys I would watch for are linebacker Anthony Gonzalez, a converted quarterback (and safety) who has steadily developed into Pitt's most reliable linebacker. He's good against the run, but is also athletic enough to drop into coverage against receivers, too. The other guy would be safety Ray Vinopal, who has had an up and down year, but tends to earn a #BigPlayRay hashtag on Twitter with some, well, big plays late in games. He had two interceptions in the fourth quarter of the win against Notre Dame and a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against North Carolina that helped Pitt come back to tie that game.
- I know there was a melt-down on punt coverage late in the North Carolina game ... how have Pitt's special teams done otherwise this season? Chris Blewitt seems like a scary name for a kicker -- how he fared this season? And how has Matt Yoklic done in handling the punting chores?
Blewitt has been fine, about what you would expect from a freshman kicker. He has missed a couple here and there, but generally has been pretty consistent. Yoklic has been a bit more up and down. He shanked a key punt late against Navy that allowed the Midshipmen to drive for a game-winning field goal.
The bigger issue has been, as you mentioned, the coverage units, particularly in the North Carolina game. Pitt also hasn't had a particularly explosive return game this year, with Tyler Boyd and Lafayette Pitts splitting the kickoff return duties. It will be interesting to see who they put out there for punt return with their regular starter (Kevin Weatherspoon) likely out.
For more information on the Panthers, click on the Pitt page from the Post-Gazette sports section.