What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: the proprietor of Cardiac Hill, SB Nation's fine blog for all things #GoPitt.
1) Pitt's 3-0, but they've looked a little inconsistent at times. They bossed Boston College in the first half of that game, but seemed to struggle a bit in the second half. Against FIU they struggled early before turning on the jets late. What gives? Early season jitters?
CH: While it's definitely true that the team was a little inconsistent in the FIU game (I'll get to that in a minute), I wouldn't let the Boston College game fool you - that really wasn't as close as it looked. Pitt had a 27-7 lead against the Eagles and had them in a third and six when they threw a long touchdown pass that appeared to be on busted coverage in the secondary. I don't want to say it was a lucky play, but it was just one of those things that happens. The drives between that play and BC's first touchdown were: punt, missed FG, punt, punt, interception, punt. The third touchdown also came with Pitt up 30-14 with two minutes left. Without trying to be disrespectful against a decent Boston College team, that just wasn't as close as the score probably indicates.
The FIU game also wasn't completely a case of coming on late. FIU got out in front 16-0, but Pitt really looked pretty good early on. The problem was two unreal fumbles that both came inside of FIU's 10-yard line and the team should have come away with touchdowns there. Conversely, FIU's offense was aided by a safety (don't ask) and a short field on a shanked kick. Coulda, woulda, shoulda - I get it. But even when Pitt trailed in that game, they still were moving the ball and just had a few really bad breaks. After that bad start, Pitt went on a 35-3 run before trading touchdowns in the final minutes.
The Panthers haven't been perfect, but I do think they've been pretty consistent overall.
2) Pitt has a stellar rushing game (344 ypg, 12 TD), but a pretty poor passing game (101.3 ypg, 60.4 % completion). Is that a function of not really needing to throw the ball because the running game has been so dominant? Or are there some genuine concerns about the Panther passing attack?
CH: I think a little of both. Early on, I've pleaded with the team to throw more only because, at some point (maybe as soon as this weekend), they'll need to. Quarterback Chad Voytik is a redshirt sophomore and new starter after NFL Draft pick Tom Savage. Voytik was a highly-rated four-star recruit, but there are a lot of questions about his passing ability. I went to one of Pitt's scrimmages during training camp and another one of our writers went to the practices. We both came away with the same questions about his accuracy.
The interesting thing was that head coach Paul Chryst waited until the very end of camp to name him as the starter, even though he was the assumed guy all the way back to the beginning of last season. The only other options on the roster are a little-used two-star guy that Todd Graham took a flyer on several years ago, a true freshman, and a walk-on, and Chryst still took that long to name him as the guy. Chryst also seems to always praise his work ethic rather than his actual abilities and I'm not sure he's sold on him.
We'll see - we can't judge Voytik yet because we just don't know. And, to be fair, the kid makes a lot of plays with his legs - he had three long runs of 30 yards or more against FIU, so that's something to watch. Plus, when you have Tyler Boyd, that's huge for any passing game. Still, there are a ton of questions about how well this team can move the ball in the air and those are valid.
3) James Conner appears to be an unholy terrormonster: 6-2, 250 lbs, 544 yards on 81 carries (6.7 ypc), 8 TD. Do you have any tips for what Iowa might try to slow him down?
CH: Outside of cutting off one of his legs, I mean, no, not really. Kidding aside, Conner's biggest problem has been fumbleitis. He coughed up the ball on both of those early plays inside the 10-yard line against FIU and had a third earlier this year. The second fumble in the FIU game was really interesting because it came doing something he really does well - fighting for extra yards...so he's going to need to be careful about that. He's difficult to stop, but if I'm the Iowa defense, I'm trying to get helmets and hands on the ball. I have no doubt that he'll be more cautious, but you never know.
4) Speaking of Conner, Iowa's also fond of big running backs -- Mark Weisman is 6-1 and 240 lbs. of defense-smashing brawn. If this game is tied after regulation, can we just dispense with overtime and have Conner and Weisman slam into each and see who flinches?
CH: I'd rather have that than rely on our passing game, so yes.
5) How good is the Pitt defense? They're around the top 10 in total defense (4th, 211 ypg), rushing defense (9th, 77.3 ypg), passing defense (11th, 133.7 ypg), and scoring defense (16th, 15.0 ppg), but the competition (Delaware, Boston College, Florida International) hasn't been stellar, either. What are this defense's main strengths? Does it have any weaknesses that Iowa might be able to exploit?
CH: Yeah, it's really hard to tell because of that competition. After Boston College's win over a top 10 USC team, they look better than expected, but overall, Pitt's opponents haven't been that great. The secondary scares me and they've had some lapses already giving up a handful of big plays. The safeties are pretty decent IMO, but cornerback is where there have been some issues. One corner is junior Lafayette Pitts who showed a ton of promise as a freshman, but now looks lost. The other is a redshirt sophomore, Reggie Mitchell, who kind of came out of nowhere in camp. Pitt has some trouble there as two guys expected to factor in didn't work out (one was suspended for the year and the other left the team). There are other options, but, overall, that's a huge weakness right now.
Linebacker is a strength as Pitt has two seniors on the outside and at least one of them, Todd Thomas, has a real chance to play in the NFL - just an athletic freak who was originally was a wide receiver recruit. The defensive line has some depth issues and starting DE David Durham was out last week with a shoulder injury. He's not a star, but is the only full-time starter back from last year. I think the run defense is pretty good, but they've got to get a little more pressure on opposing quarterbacks in passing downs.
6) Pitt appears to be in a rather winnable division this year (the ACC Coastal, aka "the one without Florida State"), so is the ambition "ACC Championship Game or bust" for the Panthers? How's life in the ACC going anyway?
CH: The last time our teams met, the Big East was still an actual thing that existed.The last time Pitt and Iowa met was an odd day - it was the one when we actually found out Pitt was headed to the ACC. So even that debacle of a game wasn't met with the suicidal thoughts that might have existed otherwise. Overall, life's going well in the ACC for the athletics programs in general. There's a lot more money compared to the Big East, and according to athletic director Steve Pederson, Pitt is using it for upgrades to the football/basketball facilities, as well as recruiting budgets for all programs. In the end, it's probably going to end up helping the non-revenue sports significantly and a few programs could use better facilities. Plus, as we found out, it's been much more stable than what there was in the Big East. Look at programs like Cincinnati and South Florida - those guys were once Top 25 programs and now are utterly irrelevant. The move for Pitt meant a step up in competition in football, but the move has been extremely positive.
Reaching the ACC title game this year to be Florida State's sacrificial lamb would be cool. And this team may make a little more noise than I anticipated (I was right at the 7-8 win mark before the season), but there are still a lot of issues here - first-year starting quarterback, virtually a new defensive line, a questionable secondary. I don't know - I get accused of being pessimistic, but to me, Pitt still has question marks. Can they win the Coastal, which is virtually wide open? Sure. I like the fast start that Pitt has had, but they're still relatively untested right now. Check back after they've played Virginia Tech, and at North Carolina and Miami.
7) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
CH: I've got Pitt, but I've also got all kinds of concerns here - and if the game were at Iowa, I might feel differently. The nightmare scenario I see playing out is Conner unable to find running room against what has been a strong run defense and the Panthers being forced to pass. Similarly, I see Pitt's run defense stopping Iowa on the ground, but facing serious issues in the secondary. Pitt has just looked better in their three games than Iowa has, and at home, it's hard to pick against them. I'll take the Panthers 30-23, but wouldn't surprised if the score ended up the other way around.
Thanks for being a good sport, although I still hope your team loses by 50 on Saturday. You can check out the CH crew at Cardiac Hill. You can also them on Twitter at @PittPantherBlog. The Iowa-Pitt game is in Pittsburgh, PA on Saturday, September 20, and is scheduled to start at 11:00 am CT, with television coverage from ESPNU.