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Back in June, ESPN's David Hale, talked about the Panthers being a darkhorse candidate for the ACC Coastal. This past week? He wrote another similar article touting Pitt as a darkhorse pick for the division.
That's not to suggest Hale isn't doing his job - we all rehash articles from time to time (i.e. around here, we love Pitt-West Virginia-Penn State scheduling talk) and to his credit, Hale was writing a primer of sorts for the upcoming ACC Media Days. I merely point this out to say, there's nothing of significance going this time of year and that even the MSM are covering/re-covering the same topics.
But more to the point, he touched on a few things that stirred up a thought that I've had for quite some time now - that there is more to Pitt for 2015 than Tyler Boyd and James Conner.
Almost universally, whenever Pitt's upcoming season is discussed, Conner and Boyd on offense are among the first players mentioned as reasons the team will break this four-year string of six-win regular seasons. Based on what they've done in only two seasons with the Panthers, that's more than deserved. Both are not only among the top of college football at their position, but they are widely considered two of the top offensive players in the nation.
Fact is though, there's a lot more to like about the Panthers' chances to make some noise this season.
As Hale points out, Chad Voytik really grew into the quarterback position as the year went on. Not to say that he still didn't have some issues later in the year, but he was virtually a completely different quarterback in the second half of the season. Hale spoke specifically to his quarterback rating and high yardage per attempt, and if you look at what Voytik did in the second half, he clearly got better as the season went along.
Counting the bowl game, Voytik threw for eight touchdowns and only two interceptions (vs. eight touchdowns and five picks in the first six games). Only once in the final seven games did he throw for fewer than 125 yards while he did so three times in the first six contests. The Pitt quarterback also learned to use his legs (one thing that endeared Todd Graham to him when he recruited him to the Panthers) more often. Voytik averaged only seven rushes in his first six games while getting close to ten per contest over the last seven. Expecting him to run even more in 2015 isn't far-fetched, either, since he should be more comfortable in the pocket and his legs are a huge asset.
Finally, Voytik was far more accurate in the second half. In four of his first six games, Voytik completed less than 60% of his passes. That only happened twice in his final seven.
Voytik still needs to improve - don't mistake this as saying he's proven to be a top quarterback in the ACC yet. Last season, he focused far too much of his efforts on finding Tyler Boyd without looking for secondary receivers and his career-high mark of 250 yards with a potential first-round NFL Draft pick at receiver is extremely light. But with a full year of experience under his belt now, it's fair to count Voytik as a reason Pitt can now succeed instead of the glaring question mark he was last year. Questions should and will follow Voytik heading into this year, but his second half should also give fans much more confidence.
Hale's next point is another that's been discussed around these parts before. Namely, that Pitt wasn't all that far removed from a pretty good season. The Panthers were only 6-7, but were competitive in nearly every game. Five of the seven losses were by five points or less and the team blew fourth quarter leads to Iowa, North Carolina, and Houston. As I've said before, a few more points in their favor could have made this an eight-, or even nine-win team. New Strength and Conditioning Coach Dave Andrews previously took it further when he told the team they could have been 11-2 with 20 more points.
There are two sides to every coin and one would be inclined to look at the team's wins to see which close ones they pulled out. But when you do that, you see that the Panthers won virtually all of their six games comfortably. The only close game was against Virginia Tech, which Pitt won by five. Even in that instance, however, they held a 21-9 fourth quarter lead before the Hokies scored with about five minutes left.
Pitt won the rest of their games by no fewer than 12 points beat the rest of their opponents fairly easily. In their case, a few more points certainly would have made all the difference towards a better season. The main point here is that Pitt was not much worse than their respective competition and with the younger guys getting a year better, there's good reason to hope they'll close games out.
The one thing that Hale doesn't mention, surprisingly, is perhaps the greatest reason they can contend in 2015 - the schedule.
I recently wrote about the team's perceived difficult non-conference schedule, but its ACC slate is a favorable one and that's the one that will decide if they can contend for a division title. The Panthers again miss both Florida State and Clemson, for starters. And while they face division favorite, Georgia Tech, on the road, they also get the likes of Miami, Louisville, and North Carolina at home. There is a tough trip to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech, but (and for whatever reason) the team has always had a lot of success against the Hokies and have won two of the past three (both, admittedly, at home). There are some difficult games to be sure, but it is still an ACC schedule that should allow for a winning season.
Defense (yes, defense)
Finally, there's the elephant in the room - the defense. Hale does go into that a bit, so I won't bore you with too many facts and figures. For me, it's pretty simple and there are two reasons the defense should be better. First, they have a defensive-minded head coach for the first time since Dave Wannstedt and that's big. It's not that Paul Chryst was wrong to place a priority on building the offensive line. It's what he knows and he knows that a strong offensive line can translate into wins. But at the same time, Narduzzi can place an emphasis on defense and, with all due respect to former defensive coordinator Matt House, the coaching staff he's assembled has been a proven one. Narduzzi isn't only a defensive coach himself, but according to ESPN, one of the top defensive minds among head coaches.
The other reason there should be improvement on defense is that things really couldn't get much worse - particularly late in the season when things completely fell apart. The Panthers gave up just over 35 points in the last six games and even when they gave up fewer in the first half, meltdowns such as the second final 30 minutes of the Iowa game and the run-defense issues against Akron proved they weren't as good as their stats. The defense simply has to be better by default and the fact that so many younger players all gained more experience. Pitt has work to do to improve at linebacker since that unit was solid, but the line and secondary should easily be better.
Boyd and Conner are two huge reasons why Pitt should improve this coming season, but there are a lot more that elicit some optimism as well.
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