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Thoughts after Pitt’s 28-7 win over Villanova

NCAA Football: Villanova at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I heard the term ‘disaster’ thrown around a bit after Pitt’s 28-7 win over Villanova. A few hours later, I’m still found trying to process today’s game.

Here are a few thoughts.

Disaster? Nah. You want disaster, try unranked Wisconsin beating No. 5 LSU. Or 15th ranked Houston taking down No. 3 Oklahoma. Or South Alabama dropping Mississippi State (on the road, no less).

I wrote this on Twitter afterwards, but things could have been worse. Much worse.

Now, on paper, beating a team by three touchdowns looks like a pretty good day. But in reality, while it wasn’t a train wreck, things didn’t go all that smoothly for the Panthers considering the foe, an FCS program. Head coach Pat Narduzzi used the term ‘sloppy’ and watching from the stands, I found that to be an accurate description. The fact is, Pitt should be winning these games by three and four touchdowns.

Running back James Conner returned and if you were watching early, Pitt was doing anything they could to get the ball into his hands. He had two carries on the Panthers’ first drive - a three and out. On the third drive, he was involved on all three plays (two rushes and an incomplete pass - another three and out. On the next drive, he was involved in three of the six plays before a missed Chris Blewitt field goal.

He finally found paydirt on the sixth drive, carrying the ball five times out of Pitt’s seven plays with it ending in a touchdown. Altogether, Conner finished with a modest 53 rushing yards on 17 carries, three catches, and two touchdowns.

The whole thing seemed a bit too rushed ... too forced. Especially for a team that harped on its depth there so much this offseason. But I also think the reasons for that were two-fold. First, they wanted to allow him to shake off some of the rust he had in not playing in the past year before they get to the Penn State game. I also think they didn’t want to show too much before next weekend and tried to keep things mostly vanilla. Both reasons make a ton of sense if you think about it.

The passing game needed some work. Nathan Peterman and company weren’t terrible, but definitely proved they have work to do. It’s funny - we’ve been talking a lot about Pitt needing to find a second receiver opposite Dontez Ford to step up. That guy may actually be tight end Scott Orndoff who, by the way, has been a pretty good player for Pitt. He didn’t get a ton of opportunity with J.P. Holtz around, but is a player. He led the team with five catches for 68 yards and while I don’t know that he does that every game, he showed he can be a factor.

One small note here as well. There has been a lot of talk this offseason about getting Conner more work in the passing game. That held true today as he had three catches - a career-best for him. He’s not going to to out there and catch a ton of balls, but he should do more in the passing game than he has in the past. Coming into today, he had only nine career catches. If he can get up to 20 or so this season, that will be a great resume booster as he prepares for an NFL career.

Another factor? That would be Quadree Henderson. Henderson was actually my pick for breakout player of the year in our preseason picks and he had a solid game. Four catches for 35 yards and, of course, the big kickoff return for a touchdown. That’s his second one of those in the past two games dating back to the Navy game last season. That kid is a playmaker and the kind of guy that could really provide a spark.

Moving on, I sort of feel a bit down for mentioning the defense this late. But of course, they were the key today. The lone Villanova points came from a defensive touchdown they scored after a short fumble return for a touchdown. The defense was incredible and while we have to give it some time to see what they do against better competition, they pitched a shutout today so it’s hard not be encouraged.

Defensively, Pitt did just about everything right. And keep in mind, that shutout was even more impressive given that Villanova had a few drives with good field position.

The Panthers’ defense kept quarterback Zach Bednarczyk to only about 50% accuracy today, they sacked him a few times, and Terrish Webb grabbed an interception. Bednarczyk, the team’s leading rusher last season, also didn’t go off there. He had a couple of big runs, but with only two net rushing yards, the defense did a decent job on him. Overall, I thought they were very effective all day long.

Special teams is a work in progress, it seems - at least the kicking game. Chris Blewitt became the all-time kick scorer in Pitt history with some extra points today, but also missed a 39-yard field goal and had another attempt blocked. Just not a great day and Pitt was fortunate the game wasn’t closer. They can’t afford those kinds of things in tight contests, which they’ll undoubtedly have at some point.

Things weren’t great but at the end of the day, a 28-7 win in the opener isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. But Pitt will probably have to play better to beat Penn State next weekend. The Nittany Lions, by the way, beat Kent State on Saturday, 33-13.

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