Pitt won a game it was expected to win, as the Panthers rolled to a 28-7 victory over the Villanova Wildcats at Heinz Field Saturday. Let’s take a look at what we learned about the Panthers in the opener.
NO ROOM TO RUN
The Panthers came out early looking to establish the run by using Jaryd Jones-Smith as a tackle eligible and Connor Dintino at fullback. But the running room just wasn’t there with the Wildcats stacking the box with eight defenders and Pitt’s offensive line — which features a pair of all-conference players on the left side — was unable to consistently open holes. James Conner ran for 53 yards on 17 carriers for just a 3.1-yard-per-carry average, but was able to find the end zone for a first-half touchdown.
“It was a little sloppier than I’d like on offense,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We never got in sync. We will. It was the first time with a new coordinator. You’re expecting some of that. … [It was] communication, I think and the first time doing some things.”
Quarterback Nate Peterman put some of the blame for the stagnant offense on himself. As the Wildcats stuffed the box and challenged Pitt to run, the passing game took a little while to get untracked.
“We just didn’t get going,” Peterman said. “We have to figure out what that was. A lot of it was on me. We have to be better and that’s something I’m planning on doing.”
Conner had plenty to say about the emotions of making his return to the field in his post-game press conference:
DEFENSE AS ADVERTISED
After a shaky first two drives, the Pitt defense settled in and dominated an inferior opponent. Josh Conklin’s unit allowed no points and just 172 total yards. Villanova quarterback Zach Bednarczyk was sacked six times and was intercepted by safety Terrish Webb in the first half. It was the second play in a row Webb was active, after he made an athletic play to break up a pass the snap before. He said film study helped him identify where the ball was going.
“That formation — we got a tendency for [Villanova] on that play, so, once I saw it, I just took the opportunity,” Webb said of his fifth career interception.
Under Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers have prioritized stopping the run, and they were able to do that against Villanova. The Wildcats’ running game was stuffed by Pitt’s defensive line, with nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett recording four tackles. But in addition to the plays where he made the tackle, the 6-foot-3, 335-pound Jarrett was a force in the middle, blowing up many of Villanova’s quick inside handoffs.
“My job is basically to cause havoc in the backfield,” Jarrett said. “If I’m playing in the backfield, then my team — my linebackers — will be able to move freely. I’ll take up double teams so that my linebackers can do what they need to do. As long as my linebackers are making plays, I’m OK with that. I don’t need to have a thousand tackles. I don’t need to have 20 sacks.”
Unlike in years past, Jarrett was able to take the vast majority of the snaps at nose tackle, only coming out for situational packages and once the game was out of reach late in the fourth quarter.
“Tyrique’s taken good strides,” said linebacker Mike Caprara. “Being the big dude that he is, he had to work hard. There was times where he could only go one or two plays. He had to make a decision to get his body right. We all definitely had his back on that. He’s definitely had some ups and downs, but he’s taken great strides and we have full confidence in him and what he’s going to do this year.”
BEST OF THE BUNCH
In the quest to replace the offensive production of departed wide receiver Tyler Boyd, three players stood out.
Quadree Henderson was an all-purpose yards beast with 211 total. Of those, 176 came in the return game, where he had a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half. He also had four catches for 35 yards on five targets, including a nice catch-and-run for a 19-yard gain.
“They say finish how you start, but in my case, with last year in the Military Bowl, I’m said I should start how I finished,” Henderson said, referencing his kickoff return touchdown that opened Pitt’s 2015 bowl game. “[Special teams coach Andre Powell] preaches that every yard matters and we saw that today.”
Henderson did most of his damage in the first half. In the second half, Jester Weah was productive, hauling in four grabs for 38 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown pass that salted the game away in the fourth quarter. His quarterback thought it could have been ever more.
“I think I kind of robbed him of two touchdowns,” Peterman said. “We’re going to get those things cleaned up and I’m really excited for his season.
Throughout, tight end Scott Orndoff was a reliable target for Nate Peterman, especially on third downs. He caught five passes for 68 yards, both of which lead the Panthers, and he was also targeted a team-high eight times.
Conner contribute with three catches out of the backfield, including a nine-yard touchdown, the first receiving touchdown of his career. Senior wide receiver Dontez Ford had two catches, and senior tight end Jaymar Parrish had one. Tre Tipton and Rafael Araujo-Lopes were both shut out, while freshman Aaron Mathews and Zach Challingsworth didn’t see the field.
FEW NEW FACES
Mathews wasn’t the only freshman that didn’t find the field. In fact, only one — defensive tackle Amir Watts — earned any playing time. He created some penetration that lead to an Avonte Maddox sack on the next-to-last defensive snap.
Once the game got out of hand, a few second-team players got some action on defense, including cornerback Philippe Motley, linebackers Saleen Brightwell and Jalen Williams, defensive ends Allen Edwards and James Folston and defensive tackles Shane Roy and Watts.
Two defensive players suffered first-half injuries and did not return. Linebacker Elijah Zeise got his left ankle rolled up on the first series and was seen in a walking boot later in the game. Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix left the game shortly thereafter and returned to the sideline for the second half also sporting a walking boot on his left foot and ankle and a set of crutches. Narduzzi said he believes both players will be “OK.”
Rori Blair replaced Hendrix at defensive end. Seun Idowu, who was expected to start, instead came off the bench and got the majority of the reps at the Star position in relief of Zeise.
Cornerback Damar Hamlin, fullbacks George Aston and Colton Lively, tight end Zach Poker, defensive tackles Jeremiah Taleni and Calvin Hamilton and cornerback Rob Boatright did not dress, in addition to the two players that are out for the year: tackle Mike Grimm (hip), defensive end Zack Gilbert (heart condition).