Yeah, that went well. Or not.
The good news? Pitt won its opener against Youngstown State, 45-37. Nothing will change that and when the updated standings drop tomorrow, they will say, Pitt is 1-0. Unfortunately, for those of us that like breaking down games and trying to get a handle on things, there were several troubling aspects in today's game.
The Panthers had all kinds of reasons to come out with a lot of emotion and make a statement today. They lost the last matchup between the two teams in 2012. It was the season opener. It was the first game of the Pat Narduzzi era, which we're told is supposed to be different. The crowd was not great but solid considering the four-year string of mediocrity the team has been on under Todd Graham and Paul Chryst. If ever there was a time to show up, it was now.
Sadly, that isn't what happened.
This isn't about knocking Youngstown State - it's really not. Earlier in the week, I wrote about their talented running game and the FBS transfers on the roster. Pitt quarterbacks Chad Voytik and Nathan Peterman each had a pick. It's interesting that the guy who got both of them, LeRoy Alexander, was one of those aforementioned FBS transfers the Penguins had on the field. They, too, had a new coach and on top of that, Pitt was without some key players. There were many reasons why this wasn't a guaranteed blowout. But if you're the Panthers, you can't be too pleased with needing to fend off an FCS team in the fourth quarter at home.
Pitt's offense and defense both played well at times today. Unfortunately, consistency was a huge issue. On offense, some of that was to be expected with an offensive line working through injuries, the leading wide receiver out due to a suspension, and the top running back out for much of the game. But quarterback Chad Voytik still often looked like a deer in headlights. He finished only 9-14 for 72 passing yards and when you consider that 55 of those came on a horribly underthrown ball where two receivers ran into each other before one caught it, he wasn't even as good as those numbers would indicate.
Voytik had some rushing yards, but was not spectacular in that department and he didn't break off any huge runs as we saw him do at times last season. He also had an extremely costly pick six interception right before halftime and lost a fumble as well. Just a really underwhelming performance, to be honest.
Part of Voytik's issue seems to be having relied on Tyler Boyd for so much. Last year, he had tunnel vision at times, refusing to look the way of other wideouts. That really came back to bite him on Saturday as the passing game was virtually non-existent. To be fair to him, he was working with all young and/or inexperienced receivers today and everything isn't on him. I wasn't watching on TV, but have seen the comments indicating the pick may not have been his fault. But for a guy with three full years already in college, he really came up short.
Defensively, there were issues, too. As I mentioned this week, the Youngstown State running game was a real threat. The Panthers had some trouble with Jody Webb led the way with 17 carries for 127 yards and two touchdowns. They really struggled, giving up numerous big chunks of yardage to the Penguins. If you take out the quarterback carries, which were primarily negatives from sacks, Youngstown State averaged 6.9 yards per rush.
Pitt didn't fully contain the aerial attack, either. Youngstown State's passing game was adequate, highlighted by a 77-yard play by Andre Stubbs, who finished with six catches for 147 yards.
I also wasn't thrilled, of course, with the end of game execution, either. Each time Pitt opened up two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter, they allowed the Penguins to (pardon the pun) march back down the field for two long scores. You take your hat off to Youngstown State for not throwing in the towel each time, but where on earth was the defense for each of those long scores when the game was on the line? I'm not sure if they were tired or overheated on a really hot day, but the effort has to be better there.
I also was not completely thrilled with the strategy of the coaches at times. Particularly, the quarterback shuffling earlier was borderline ridiculous. Narduzzi said this week that he wanted to get Peterman in the game early to get reps, but I assumed that would be if the game was out of hand. To see him in there for the third and fourth series was mind-boggling to say the least. Voytik was not good today and perhaps the staff isn't nearly as comfortable with him as it seemed. But to replace the incumbent starter two series into the season opener just isn't good football. I have no issue with giving Peterman some reps in the second half, but to yank Voytik like that so early is sort of a slap in the face to a guy who played really good football over the latter part of the season in 2014.
After Peterman's pick, he sat for the rest of the game. So the end result is that while you got him some reps, Narduzzi/Chaney also seriously questioned the starting quarterback and showed they didn't have a ton of faith in him. Keep in mind, too, that Voytik is only a junior and has another year to go after this one so alienating him isn't a great strategy, either.
The success rate with teams using two quarterbacks is not high and if that's the intent, I have a hard time getting on board with that. For the record, Voytik played out the rest of the game, so we may still not be seeing a quarterback competition here. But the insertion of Peterman so early is going to (and should) raise a ton of questions this week. There is, in my humble opinion, no reason to treat your quarterbacks like yo-yos in the very first quarter of the season.
There were good things that came out of the game, so I don't want to be entirely negative here. Qadree Ollison came on and was arguably the player that saved the game for Pitt. The Panthers didn't have James Conner for much of the game due to injury/precautionary reasons (more on that later), but the running backs really didn't miss much of a beat. Ollison was Conner-like and had 207 yards on 16 carries, along with a 71-yard score and a separate 52-yard run where he got down to the Penguins 1-yard line (that run, by the way, was incredible).
Defensively, linebacker Nic Grigsby was all over the field. He finished with ten tackles (three for losses) and two sacks. You could make an argument for him for player of the game as you could with Ollison. Overall, too, the defense looked good early on. On Youngstown State's first drive, they got down to the 5-yard line but the defense held them to a field goal when an early touchdown would have been ugly. They then held them to four punts in their next five complete drives (a sixth ended before halftime). The defense also got a key fourth down stop early in the fourth quarter, stopping Webb who had given them so much trouble.
I also don't know what the stats were, but Mark Scarpinato seemed to be in the mix on a lot of plays. I repeatedly saw his #97 around the ball and while I'm not sure it resulted in a ton of tackles, he looked to have a pretty good game from watching in the stands.
Like the other two units, the special teams was also a mixed bag. Kicker Chris Blewitt missed a very makeable 41-yard field goal and the punting by Ryan Winslow was not very good. The flipside was a big play in the return game. Ironically, that play came on Avonte Maddox taking a kickoff to the house after he collided with another player almost resulting in a turnover. Jordan Whitehead also got into the game and completely botched a return, allowing it to bounce behind him inside of the Pitt 15-yard line. Youngstown State nearly downed it on the 1-yard line before it rolled into the end zone.
The reports on the return game in camp have been good and despite the miscues, I'm pretty encouraged by that unit that didn't even Tyler Boyd today. Reader maguro said in one of the threads that it would be scary to know where Pitt would have been without the Maddox return that put the Panthers up by two scores in the fourth quarter and I fully agree.
Overall, if there's one takeaway here, it's that Pitt has much work to do. Glad to have the win and it beats the alternative ... but let's get some things cleaned up here.