So, what a change, right?
Okay, so we all figured Pitt would win. Our staff all predicted a Panthers win and while we mostly saw a comfortable one. In my Q&A over with the Mountain West Connection blog, I picked a Pitt win by a couple of touchdowns and the Panthers actually ended up winning by 22 - a number right around the spread.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the Panthers' offense needing to get on track. That included the passing game and it's safe to say that both showed up on Saturday. Tom Savage was 13-17 for 236 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw two interceptions. The running game, though, was amazing. Both James Conner and Isaac Bennett each rushed for a little over 100 yards and the pair added four touchdowns (two apiece). Conner lost a fumble, but it's hard to argue with 220 yards and four scores from those two guys.
Meanwhile, New Mexico's running game was solid, but it came from an unusual source. Instead of Kasey Carrier dominating, it was junior Crusoe Gongbay. Gongbay had 95 yards on only ten carries and added a touchdown. Carrier, regarded as the team's best player, struggled with only 22 yards on seven attempts. I'm not sure if he was banged up or if the coaches determined he was just flat out ineffective, but he only had one carry in the second half as Gongbay got the bulk of the work.
Carrier wasn't the only problem, though. Starting quarterback Clayton Mitchem wasn't real good, either. He did finish 8-15, but for only 64 yards. More importantly, Mitchem couldn't get the option going. He had nine carries for a loss of nine yards and while he recovered both, also fumbled twice. Starter Cole Gautsche, fresh off of a concussion, came in during the second half and was very effective. He ran ten times for 50 yards and while he fumbled once, also had two touchdowns. The New Mexico offense was simply much better with him in the game.
But other than that, the game was really about Pitt.
I wanted to see more accuracy out of Savage and he showed it, completing 76% of his passes. There were the two picks, but I really think we're going to see that out of him going forward. What Pitt needs out of him is to just pile up yards and be more accurate - if that happens, fans will be able to live with the occasional mistakes.
We already talked about the running backs, so looking ahead to the wide receivers, it was another monster day for Boyd. Instead of being limited in the passing game as he was against Florida State, predictably, he found more room and caught six balls for 134 yards including two absolutely spectacular touchdowns. In the first quarter, Boyd had a 33-yard touchdown run and in the second, put a nail in the coffin for New Mexico with a 34-yard touchdown catch as time expired before halftime. And in case you forgot, he had a huge 51-yard reception early in the game that led to the first touchdown.
Folks, get on board the Boyd train. If this kid stays healthy, he's going to be uber special. Give Savage credit - he's pretty accurate on deep balls. Boyd, though, pulled those in and held onto the ball. Florida State's Jameis Winston may get more consideration for the conference's top freshman, but Boyd is having an amazing season so far.
Along those same lines, the offensive line opened up big holes in the running game and gave Savage all kinds of time. I was really impressed with the effort today.
And on defense, holy crap, Todd Thomas. I'll have more on him later, but man, he had some kind of game. Ten tackles including two big stops on a third down and ensuing fourth down in the fourth quarter on a fake punt. Thomas got the start and after today, I think it's safe to say that will be a permanent situation.
Aaron Donald was also an absolute beast. Watching the game, I thought he had more than the five tackles he actually did, and he also had two sacks - just seemed like he in on more plays. Even when he's clearly the focus on that line, I'm amazed at how he continues to make plays. And while the secondary wasn't expected to be tested much against New Mexico who just doesn't throw a lot, they showed up and gave up only 57 passing yards.
So even in blowouts, we never like to talk only about what went right. Pitt definitely didn't play a perfect game. There were Savage's two picks (and that first one was just a horrible read), the team lost two fumbles including Lafayette Pitts getting in the way on a punt return, and the Panthers also had seven penalties. Letting New Mexico rally a bit in the second half wasn't ideal, either, and after holding the team to six points in the first half, Pitt gave up 21 in the second.
All of that said, though - lots more to like about this game than to not.
Unfortunately, as I said recently on Twitter, this game really doesn't show us very much about Pitt. New Mexico isn't a great team or even a very good one and this game hardly proves that the Panthers will have a great season. But we saw pretty much what we needed to from them and that in and of itself is encouraging.