PITTSBURGH — Who is Pitt’s first-half MVP?
That seems like it should be a pretty straightforward question. The Panthers are 5-2 as they enter their bye week, so they’re just past he midway point of the season, which is a good time for reflection. But it’s pretty hard to narrow down the list of potential candidates.
Quarterback Nate Peterman seems like an obvious starting point, if only because quarterbacks typically dominate MVP conversations. Peterman has been efficient — he’s completed a career-high 63.3 percent of his passes — and he has 11 touchdowns compared to two interceptions, so he’s taken good care of the ball, as well.
But when you think of an MVP, you think of the kind of player that can be the spark for an offense, and so far, Pitt’s passing game hasn’t been able to consistently do that. Instead, it’s been feast or famine, with a number of big plays tempered by a frustrating inability to convert for yardage and finish games.
Peterman’s competition numbers (100 of 158) are inflated by a lot of shovel passes and screens and his passing yards (1,252) have been buoyed by the run-after-the-catch prowess of receivers Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah and one fortunate bounce into the hands of Scott Orndoff.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
The offensive line has been without question the strength of Pitt’s team this season. Peterman has been sacked just twice while the rushing offense is clipping along at 239.1 yards per game — 15th in nation.
But it’s tough to sort out an individual player from the overall group’s success. Left tackle Adam Bisnowaty is a vocal leader and most prominent member of the group, but his more modest counterpart inside, Dorian Johnson, might be having an even better year from the left guard spot, especially when it comes to opening up running lanes. Then there’s Brian O’Neill, who famously scored a touchdown on a lateral, but has also been a pass protection wizard from the right tackle spot.
So much of what the offensive line does depends on one another, as well. If center Alex Officer misses a pass protection call, it doesn’t matter how well the rest of the line blocks it. If right guard Alex Bookser misses on his half of a double-team, James Conner might be stuffed in the backfield before Johnson can use his athleticism to get to the second level. While the line as a unit has brought home the goods for the Panthers, it’s awfully tough to single on player out as better than the others.
There’s no question that Conner’s return from Hodgkin lymphoma has been the emotional story of the season for the Panthers and the leadership provided by the team captain has provided an unbelievable spark.
Conner’s been productive on the field, as well, with seven rushing touchdown — tied for fourth in the ACC — and 531 yards rushing, which has him on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Conner is also having his best pass-catching season, with 15 grabs for 197 yards and two touchdowns in the air.
But the true definition of value is what you bring to the table that can’t be replaced, and Conner’s been pushed by a deep group of running backs that have been his equal and at times surpassed his production.
Freshman Chawntez Moss is out-gaining Conner on a yards-per-carry basis, 6.2 to 4.3. Henderson and Jordan Whitehead have provided spark running around the edges. At the goal line, Qadree Ollison (one touchdown on 22 carries) and George Aston (four touchdowns on 15 carries) have shown that they can get the job done, as well.
The country’s leader in sacks and far and away the best player on the defense, Price has delivered with the pass rush in a way that few Panthers greats ever have. His speed and athleticism coming off the edge are something that every single opponent must game plan for and gives the Panthers a tangible benefit in of itself.
He has 26 tackles to go along with his nine sacks, and has been stout at the point of attack in the running game, as well.
But for the most part, Pitt has beaten opponents by outscoring them, not by stopping them. The Panthers are 91st in the country in scoring defense and have kept just two opponents — Villanova and Marshall — below 30 points.
Pitt’s dynamic wide receiver has come through in a bunch of big ways for the Panthers. He leads the nation in kick return average. He leads all usual rushers with a 10.9-yards-per-carry average.
That’s the part where he’s really shone. Everyone knew Henderson was an outstanding kick returner. He scored on the opening kickoff against Navy in the Military Bowl last year and the fact that he has two more this season isn’t exactly surprising.
Henderson has been a quality receiving option and has perhaps even been under-targeted in that role.
But the running game, in particular the jet sweep, has been where Henderson has really showed his value. The diminutive wideout is the team’s second-leading rusher, with 359 yards on 32 carries, and his ability to make plays in space has opened up the inside game for Conner and Moss, as well.
Matt Canada has gotten a lot of credit for his newly installed offense that includes a lot of pre-snap resets and motions to throw off defenses. But without the dangerous contributions of Henderson, all of that would simply be window dressing on a basic pro-style offense.
Instead, Henderson has made the whole offense more dangerous and continues to do so, even when teams are selling out against the sweep, as Virginia did last Saturday.
That’s why he’s my choice as Pitt’s first-half MVP, and it looks like the fanbase agrees with me, according to my Twitter survey taken Wednesday morning.