PITT VS. VILLANOVA – 1:30 EST, HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
STREAMING: ACC Sports Extra
RADIO: 93.7 the Fan
Eight months have passed and the wait for Pitt football is almost over. The Panther’s 2016 football season kicks off Saturday at Heinz Field against the Villanova Wildcats. Yes, some fans are overlooking the opener against an FCS opponent, viewing a win in week one as a forgone conclusion. Yes, many fans have September 10th on their minds. However, season openers against FCS opponents have presented difficulty for Pitt in recent years, and like Youngstown State in 2012, Villanova cannot be taken for granted.
Let’s take a quick look at Villanova and how Pitt matches up with their in-state foe on Saturday.
Villanova, coming off of a somewhat disappointing 6-5 season, experienced multiple injuries to key contributors in 2015. Most notably, when star quarterback John Robertson went down for the season in the Wildcat’s third game of the year, all hopes of FCS championship contention vanished. The 2015 season may have been deemed a disappointment, but valuable experience was gained for replacement quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, which could contribute to Villanova’s success in 2016. Bednarczyk earned CAA Football Co-Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after throwing for 1,396 yards and 10 touchdowns in his freshman year, while adding another 515 yards and five touchdowns with his legs. Villanova will rely on the 6’1” 200 pound Bednarcyzk to operate their spread offense this season and move the chains.
Statistically, none of Villanova’s returning skill position players on offense stand out other than Bednarcyzk. Leading receiver Kevin Gulyas graduated (40 receptions/608 yards/7 touchdowns), and the majority of Nova’s rushing yards come from the quarterback position. Besides Bednarcyzk, senior running back Javon White is the next leading rusher from last year with 396 yards on 69 carries and two touchdowns. With a shortage of established offensive playmakers, the Wildcats will require solid play from senior offensive guard Nico D’Angelo and their offensive line to contend with Pitt. This will be a tough task with Tyrique Jarrett, the Panthers’ 6’3” 335 pound senior nose tackle, providing bulk up the middle, and senior All-ACC defensive end Ejuan Price building upon a 2015 season which saw him accumulate 11.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. Villanova will also look to identify 2015 Freshman All-American Jordan Whitehead’s #9 jersey before every play. Whitehead returns after a freshman season that saw him register a team-high 109 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, and one interception.
On defense, Villanova will be led by senior defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon and senior linebacker Austin Calitro. At 6’7” and 290 pounds, Kpassagnon is the defensive player worth watching. In 2015, he registered 33 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, one interception, and two blocked kicks on his way to earning first team All-CAA honors. Calitro, a 6’0” 245 pound senior linebacker, returns as the Wildcats’ leading tackler and third team All-CAA performer. The Wildcats will be looking for Calitro to assume an even larger role this year after losing linebacker Don Cherry and safety Cameron McCurry to graduation. Together, Cherry and McCurry accounted for 156 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and four forced fumbles on a defense that allowed only 18.4 points per game. Their experience will be missed behind a relatively young and undersized defensive line that faces an experienced and physically imposing Pittsburgh offensive line, led by senior All-ACC performers Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson. They will also be missed when trying to contain a corps of running backs that features 2014 All-American James Conner, 2015 Co-ACC Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison, former 4-star recruit Darrin Hall, and talented freshman Chawntez Moss. Senior quarterback Nate Peterman returns for the Panthers, but leading receiver Tyler Boyd now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, and questions remain as to how cohesive and successful Pitt’s passing game will be this season.
Special teams typically usually only receive recognition when things go very well, or very wrong. For the Wildcats, field goals and extra points were not an area of strength in 2015. Between two field goal kickers, Villanova converted just 3 of 10 field goals during the season, and added three missed extra points as well. Sophomore Gerard Smith assumed field goal duties for the final eight games of last season, converting only 1 of 5 attempts over 30 yards.
HOW THE TEAMS COMPARE:
|Yards Per Rush||4.8||4.6|
|Yards Per Game||186.8||185.8|
|Yards Per Pass||7.2||6.8|
|Yards Per Catch||11.7||11.8|
|Yards Per Game||190.6||177.6|
|Points Per Game||28.2||21.0|
|Yards Per Play||5.8||5.5|
|Yards Per Game||377.5||363.5|
|Time of Possession Per Game||31:43||30:06|
|Yards Per Rush||4.3||3.6|
|Yards Per Game||148.5||137.7|
|Yards Per Pass||7.2||6.8|
|Yards Per Catch||13.0||12.2|
|Yards Per Game||214.7||171.4|
|Points Per Game||26.1||18.4|
|Yards Per Play||5.7||4.9|
|Yards Per Game||363.2||309.1|
|Net Yards Per Kickoff||40.7||39.2|
|Net Yards Per Punt||37.5||37.0|
|Yards Per Kick Return||24.8||16.3|
|Yards Per Punt Return||6.3||5.0|
|Kick Return Touchdowns||2||0|
|Punt Return Touchdowns||1||0|
|Field Goals Made/Attempted||15/23||3/10|
Pitt is, like most FBS teams facing an FCS team, the favorite to win on Saturday. However, FCS teams have found ways to upset – or at least challenge – FBS teams year after year, and Villanova is no stranger to this trend. The Wildcats began their 2015 season by nearly upsetting the University of Connecticut, losing by just five points in East Hartford. In 2014, Villanova forced Syracuse to double overtime at the Carrier Dome before losing by one point on a failed two-point conversion. Even in 2013, they lost their opener by 10 points at Boston College. The Wildcats are familiar with playing FBS opponents on the road, and they are just as familiar with keeping those games close.
For Villanova head coach Andy Talley, September 3rd will be the final time he leads the Wildcats out against an FBS program. Talley, entering his 32nd year as Villanova’s head coach, will retire following the 2016 season. The Wildcats may look to draw from this added emotional motivator when trying to kick start Talley’s final season with a major upset victory. It is not as though Pitt will enter Saturday’s game without an emotional motivator themselves, though. James Conner will take the field for the first time since being diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma less than a year ago.
On the injury front, Villanova will be without senior linebacker Corey Majors and running back Matt Gudzak on Saturday. Majors is the second leading tackler returning for the Wildcats this season, behind the aforementioned Austin Calitro. Second team All-CAA cornerback Malik Reeves is expected to receive limited playing time as well. For the Panthers, highly touted freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin will not make his debut in week one due to injury. According to coach Narduzzi, he is “dealing with a minor thing that we just can’t get right.”
Saturday’s game at Heinz Field is set to begin at 1:30pm. Fans that cannot make it to Heinz Field can tune into 93.7 the Fan, or stream the opener online using ACC Network Extra.
Regardless of how the game is followed, there are plenty of reasons to be both excited, and a healthy amount of nervous, for Saturday’s opener versus Villanova.