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At First Glance: Pitt vs. Youngstown State Preview

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

And, the football offseason is officially, officially over.

Welcome to the regular season, folks. Pitt's training camp wrapped up last week and we're finally into a game week for the first time this year.

The Panthers start off with an interesting foe in Youngstown State. Three years ago, the Paul Chryst era kicked off with a debut against the Penguins. Ironically, just as Pitt used Youngstown State to break in a new head coach with Chryst, they do so again with Pat Narduzzi.Playing an FCS team rarely goes badly for FBS programs and, well ...


There's no sugar-coating things here. If Pitt has even the slightest notion of looking past its opponent this time around (especially after an almost-as-embarrassing loss to Akron last year), the coaching staff really hasn't done its job since taking over this year.

There are some pretty scary parallels here, of course. As mentioned, Pitt's latest head coach is debuting again the Penguins. Last time, Pitt had the game at home and they also get this one at Heinz Field. The 2012 team featured a star running back and receiver combo in NFL players Ray Graham and Devin Street - same here with James Conner and Tyler Boyd. You might also remember that in the 2012 game, the Panthers had several suspensions right before kickoff and the Panthers will also be short some players this time around, too.

Pitt will not only be without players, but starters. Most notably, the team won't have the suspended Boyd, its star wide receiver, following his DUI in the offseason. The Panthers will also miss projected starter Rori Blair, who was at the top of his defensive end position on the depth chart after the spring practices.

Being honest here, it's still a game Pitt should win. The Panthers have more talent on the team, but as previously mentioned, that 2012 team had some good players as well. The bottom line is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted here and Pitt needs to show up to win.

Also working against the Panthers is a head to head matchup against coach Bo Pelini. Pelini was fired by Nebraska after last season, despite averaging more than nine wins per game in his seven years there. Pelini never won fewer than nine games in a season with the Cornhuskers and will definitely be prepared to give Pitt all they can handle. The slightly good news is that he hasn't been around long enough to recruit the players he'll ultimately want there, but the flipside is that Youngstown State had plenty of talent in 2012 to knock off the Panthers.

In addition, consider that the Penguins will be gearing up to play Pitt. This is their signature opponent for the season and it's a game the players have no doubt been looking forward to all offseason. While Pitt will face off against some heavyweights later, including ranked Notre Dame and Georgia Tech teams, this is Youngstown State's 'Super Bowl' if they don't make the playoffs again.

Since that win over the Panthers in 2012, Youngstown State hasn't exactly been dominant. Even in 2012 when they won soundly over the Panthers, the team was still a very pedestrian 7-4. They went 8-5 and 7-4 the next two seasons, losing their FBS games to Michigan State and Illinois. FWIW, the game against the Illini last season was respectable - Youngstown State actually led in the fourth quarter of that game before ultimately losing by 11. But overall, the Penguins haven't been a strong force, even at the FCS level.

While Pitt has the more talented players, Youngstown State has several key guys to watch. Like Pitt, the Penguins boast a strong running game. The team returns its top two rushers in juniors Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb. The pair topped 2,000 yards and scored 19 rushing touchdowns in 2014. Ruiz led the duo with 1,350 yards but Webb averaged a gaudy 6.9 yards per carry. That running game should have success again this year as four of the team's five starters on the offensive line return.

In the passing game, the team's leading receiver in 2014, senior Andrew Williams (54 catches, 976 yards, and six touchdowns) also returns. The Penguins also will start sophomore quarterback, Hunter Wells, who had 1,772 yards while completing 59% of his passes last year with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Last year, he was in part-time duty, becoming the starter halfway through the year.

Also similar to the Panthers, Youngstown State wasn't able to do much defensively to disrupt opposing offenses. The Penguins had only 14 turnovers on the season. The defensive line is solid, however, and Youngstown State returns defensive ends Terrell Williams and Derek Rivers, who combined for 23 sacks. Rivers, in particular, was a national Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Overall, Youngstown State returns seven players on defense.

Is any of that meant to scare you? Not necessarily. But again, the Panthers need to exercise a great deal of caution here. The Pat Narduzzi train has been full of momentum and Pitt did so much to hype his arrival and the new direction of the program in the offseason. Nothing would derail that train more than an opening-season loss to the Penguins.

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