Heading into the season, I doubt many fans would have given Pitt’s upcoming game against Ohio much thought. If determining a win-loss record, the game would have been presumed as a guaranteed win by, well, just about everyone.
But after a 16-point loss to Virginia on Saturday, any idea for a guaranteed win should go out the window. Oddsmakers point to that and Pitt opened as only a 3 1/2-point favorite. That number has since grown to 5 1⁄2 to six points but ...
Now, none of that is to suggest Pitt will lose against Ohio this weekend. But some things are certainly against them here.
For one thing, the Panthers’ offense looked worse than expected against the Cavaliers. Pitt couldn’t run, mostly couldn’t throw, and suffered mistakes in being beaten badly in their season opener. Pitt may not be a bad team, necessarily, but I doubt that many imagined they would look as flat as they did in that game, even against an admittedly good defense.
For another, while it’s a home game, how much of a home field advantage they’ll actually have remains to be seen. The Virginia loss probably sucked out a lot of enthusiasm among the fan base and those on the fence about attending have less of a reason to do so. And with a ridiculous 11:00 a.m. start time, that will make it even harder to get folks to attend. Home game? Sure. But this won’t be some kind of raucous crowd that’s been liquored up all day.
Pitt’s athletic department certainly senses this, too. The day after the Virginia loss, I got an email (as I’m sure other non-season ticket holders got) from the school with an offer for $10 lower level end zone tickets. To say it plainly, I’m expecting a light crowd for this one.
Also somewhat lost here (and the most important factor) is that Ohio is expected to be a pretty good team. The Bobcats defeated Rhode Island in their opener, 41-20. Last year, they were 9-4 with three of those losses coming by a combined nine points — the fourth came against ACC foe, Virginia). The Bobcats are also the preseason favorite to win the MAC this season.
If Pitt is to win on Saturday, they’ll need to put an emphasis on stopping Ohio’s ground attack. The Bobcats rushed for 278 yards in their opening game and were led by dual-threat quarterback Nathan Rourke who had a 75. It’s a multi-headed attack with Rourke contributing along with Julian Ross, De’Montre Tuggle, O’Shaan Allison, and Ja’Vahri Portis all playing a role in the opener. All were quite successful and Ross’ 4.9 yards per carry was actually the lowest among the team.
But if you think Ohio will only be running the ball, think again. The Bobcats actually threw more times than they ran on their 13-play, 94-yard opening drive against Rhode Island. A good chunk of their rushing yardage came late after the game had been decided. Rourke threw 22 times for 188 yards in the game but I suspect he can do more damage than that through the air. The term ‘gunslinger’ isn’t exactly deserved but he did throw for more than 250 yards three times last year while nearly reaching that mark in a 246-yard effort against Virginia.
As I said, I expect the Panthers will come out of this one alive. The roster up and down the lineup is undoubtedly going to be more talented and after an embarrassing opener, Pitt has plenty of motivation. But, suddenly the game doesn’t look like the gimme that most probably assumed coming into the season.