Here we are. The first big game in the Todd Graham era is this Saturday in Iowa City in front of what will most likely be a raucous Iowa crowd. Now that most teams have played a couple games, we have stats to work with.
Here's the early preview of the Hawkeyes from over the summer.
When Pitt has the ball:
1) Run the ball. A lot.
The struggles in the Pitt passing game have been discussed enough here. But what hasn't been discussed is Iowa's run defense, which is currently 82nd in the NCAA, allowing 167 yards through two games. Expect Ray Graham and Zach Brown to get a lot of carries.
2) Be smart in the passing game
Iowa has a lot of experience in the secondary as they return both cornerbacks from last season and have safeties with game experience prior to this season. Tino is going into this game with a lot of questions about his starting status and his recent play. The last thing he needs to do is further the criticism by throwing 50-50 balls. Keep the passes short and simple and occasionally take a shot downfield and the Panthers can win. While there's potential, the Iowa linebackers are young and inexperienced. Pitt has to take advantage early on.
3) Score quick and early
We saw what happened last season at Utah. The game was close throughout and the crowd was in it the entire time. If Pitt can get some early scores and play strong on defense, it'll go a long way in making the rest of the game easy on the Panthers.
BONUS: Be strong on the line
I planned on keeping this to three things, but there's one more key area and that's the offensive line - it's obviously a major weakness in the Pitt offense. But fortunately for the Panthers, Iowa comes into the game with only two sacks and only nine tackles for loss (by comparison, Pitt has five sacks and 15 tackles for loss). This is the type of game that could really boost the confidence of the lineman if they're able to hold off the Iowa defense. Pitt is currently 3rd to last in sacks allowed and tied for 103rd in tackles for loss allowed.
When Iowa has the ball:
1) Be aggressive
Force turnovers and get to the QB - two things that Iowa has done well to prevent on offense and things that Pitt has struggled with so far. Pitt has to set the tempo on offense and defense. By being aggressive, the Panthers can get Iowa out of their game and secure favorable field position. Pitt can't trade scores since they simply aren't experienced enough in Todd Graham's system to win shootouts. Nor can we rely heavily on Tino's arm to get down the field quickly. If the Panthers can force three and outs or get turnovers, favorable field position will lead to easy scores. Iowa's QBs have only completed 56% of their passes, if Pitt can get James Vandenberg out of his rhythm, it'll only help.
2) Have a strong red zone defense
In nine red zone trips, Iowa has scored TDs on five of them. Three times, Iowa went for FGs and the last time, they turned the ball over. Pitt has to keep Iowa to three points when in the red zone, which the Hawkeyes' other two opponents have done with some success.
3) Avoid exhaustion
The past two games have shown that the Panthers defense gets tired around the start of the 4th quarter. Perhaps it was because of inferior competition, but Pitt has to stay strong at all times on defense and not let up even if the game seems out of reach. Unlike Buffalo or Maine, Iowa is a good team and will gladly take advantage of a tired defense for easy scores. They haven't done so thus far, but Pitt must find a way to stay active the entire game.
Pitt pass defense vs. Iowa QB James Vandenberg
The passing defense for Pitt is bad, as we all know. The Panthers have allowed over 300 passing yards in each of the past two games against arguably inferior opponents. Iowa comes into the game averaging 226 yards through the air. There's not one unit in the pass defense that needs to be singled out, as the secondary and linebackers each have their own weaknesses and have had their struggles in the first two weeks. As I wrote above, though, Iowa has a passing completion percentage of just over 56%, thanks in part to a relatively new QB in James Vandenberg. If Vandenberg is allowed time to complete his throws, he will hurt the defense for big gains. He nearly led Iowa to a victory in the Horseshoe against Ohio State a few years ago so he's used to being in big-game situations. It'll be up to the linebackers and secondary to keep tight coverage on the Iowa receivers to prevent big plays and the defensive line to force constant pressure on Vandenberg. If they do that, Pitt can walk out of Kinnick Stadium with a win.