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2016 Spring Game Thoughts

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8,033 fans came to watch the 2016 Pitt Football Spring Game

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Attendance

Momentum.  That word can be thrown around a lot in the sports world, but right now it feels like the Pitt football program has a good bit of it. The feeling seemed to start last off-season at the 2015 Spring Game held at Highmark Stadium.  Pitt did a great job of marketing the event on a number of different levels. They held a draft to pick the teams to help spark fan interest, they had two famous alums as captains of the teams, and they brought back many former players to recognize.  By doing so, it brought a sellout crowd of 5,325, which was good for 43rd nationally and fourth in the ACC.

Since that feel good day back in 2015, Pitt has done the following:

  • Put together an 8-4 season, the program's best since 2010.
  • A wildfire approach to selling out the bowl ticket allotment, which was conquered with ease.
  • A Head Coach that has stirred the pot with the rival to the East.
  • A top 30 recruiting class, the program's best since Dave Wannstedt was the coach.
  • Off to a record start in season ticket sales for the 2016 season.
Now with all that momentum, it only made sense for the program to move the Spring Game back to Heinz Field, and try to grow it from there. Many of the same gimmicks from last year were kept, but moving it back to the home stadium gave it a chance to grow, and it did. If you have kept up with the site in the past, you may know Anson has strongly been in favor of that decision to play the Spring game at Heinz Field. After attending my first Spring game ever this past Saturday, I can see why they made the move.

8,033 fans showed up to Heinz Field this past Saturday to watch the Tony Dorsett led Blue team defeat Matt Cavanuagh's Gold team 19-17.  It marked Pitt's best attended Spring game since 2008, which as you recall the program was was riding the wave of momentum of the 13-9 win over West Virginia and a top 30 recruiting class recently signed.

The 8,033 number gave Pitt an increase of nearly 3,000 fans from last season, which is a tremendous improvement. It will be a few weeks until it is official, but that number should give Pitt a top 40 Spring game attendance in the country for 2016.  Now those numbers and rankings mean very little, it's still a nice thing to have some growth as Pitt continues to try and make this thing an event people will want to attend in the future.

Experience

Now as for the logistical aspects, I thought some were good and some were bad.  I thought the tailgating scene was great, with everyone packed into the Gold lots right next to the stadium.  It made it easy to bounce around and see different people and it made for a festive atmosphere.

While I liked the condensed parking situation, I wasn't so much in favor of it for the seating inside the stadium. Pitt had everyone packed on the one sideline. I'm sure it looked good for photo ops and such, but on such a hot day you almost wanted to spread out a bit more.  I know of some friends with young kids there that wished they had more room. If you have a 68,000 seat stadium, I think opening up more than 8 sections would be a wise move.

Other than that issue, I thought things ran smoothly.  For having never been to a Spring game, I wasn't sure what to expect. I have heard many times that it's just another practice, and in reality I found out that is exactly what it is.  It's a situation where you come out to support Pitt, maybe tailgate a little, meet up with some friends, but if you are expecting to learn a lot about the team - you will be a bit disappointed.

I think there are little things Pitt could do to make things a little more enticing. I think having Narduzzi address the fans before the game would be a nice touch. Perhaps have the band do their usual pregame routine and have the team run through the tunnel the band makes like they do on a normal game. Just some little things. While it was probably out of their hands, if the new apparel and uniforms were revealed at or before the game.....wow it would have put an extra buzz in the air. I think Barnes and company missed an opportunity there.

The Game

As I mentioned above, it was a pretty relaxed game. The Quarterbacks aren't allowed to be hit and the punt returns and kickoff returns are whistled dead. I have no issues with that at all, better safe than sorry, but I mention it to illustrate that it is not a real game.

The scoreboard read 3-2 with just under four minutes until halftime, but then we finally got to see some fireworks.  Quadree Henderson took a reverse 64 yards to the house.  Henderson had a great bounce in his step all afternoon, and taking it back to the big returns in the Miami and Navy games, I get the sense he is going to be a big weapon for Matt Canada this season. He finished the day as the blue's leading rusher with 107 yards on 4 carries.

The running backs looked good at times, but had trouble finding running room at other points of the game. True freshman/early enrollee Chawntez Moss looks like he can be a very good one.  He was making people miss, and looked smooth with the ball in his hands.  Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison were held in check, but both showed some flashes.

I walked away from the quarterback situation a bit nervous.  Nate Peterman looked fine running a very basic playbook, and he should be fine this season.  Manny Stocker was certainly the best of the rest, but that's not saying much. He is mobile and looks like he can make some plays with his feet.  Ben DiNucci and Adam Bertke both looked shaky, and neither really made any plays.  Heading into next season, walk-on Manny Stocker is probably the number 2 guy with a head and shoulders lead on the other two.

In their attempt to find a replacement for Tyler Boyd, I think we learned some things on Saturday. For starters, Jester Weah is going to get every chance in the world to be a factor on this team, assuming he can hold onto the ball.  He really does look the part physically, but we know his hands have failed him during the games.  He made some plays Saturday, and looked comfortable out there.  He has everything you would want physically.

I mentioned I think Henderson will get a lot of touches, but look for Rafael Araujo-Lopes to do the same in a similar role.  Both players are smaller speedsters, and with the receiver situation shaky as it is, being creative with players like these two might be a nice option to have.  To throw out one more name, I thought JaQuan Davidson did some nice things.  Like Weah, Davidson is a guy that looks the part.

Defensively, I think Pitt is going to have a strong pass rush.  DeWayne Hendrix can't really go full speed with the QB's not being live, but he'll be a force come the regular season teamed up with Ejuan Price.   Elijah Zeise played very well in his new position of linebacker.  He will challenge to be a starter during Fall camp.  Jordan Whitehead was solid, as expected.  I was impressed with redshirt freshman corner, Dane Jackson. There are going to be a number of true freshmen fighting for playing time in the Fall, but don't totally count out Jackson for some playing time.

Final Thoughts

It was a great day in Pittsburgh Saturday. With the Pitt event, Penguins playoff game, and the Pirates at night - obviously there was a buzz in town all day, not to mention the perfect weather.  I was impressed and pleased to see Pitt draw 8,000 people to their Spring Game on such a busy day. Heck, they may have lost some students to the Bigelow Bash event on campus happening at the same time.

Can Pitt start to get 10, 12, even 15 thousand people in future seasons?  I think so.  If Narduzzi continues to captivate the fans and elevate the program, there is no reason this event can't continue to grow.  As I suggested, there are a few things the administration can do to improve the fan experience, and I suspect they'll tweak some things.  Scott Barnes has been receptive to fan suggestions in the past, if the committee has ideas - they'll be heard.

Ohio State just had 100,000 come to their Spring Game.  It's absurd that many people would come to watch what literally is a practice.  But hey, that's where they are as a program. I would just like Pitt's attendance to grow for regular season games, but that's another story.  I think if this Pat Narduzzi-led football program is going to keep going in the right direction, the Spring game will continue to evolve.  8,000 this year?  Why not 10,000 next year, heck why not 12,000? We'll find out, but it will ultimately come back to one word: momentum.