What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: CH from Cardiac Hill, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Pitt.
1) How's the Pat Narduzzi Era going at Pitt? Luring him out of Michigan State seemed like an impressive coup on Pitt's part when it happened -- how have the early returns been?
CH: Early returns are good. In the offseason, the team generated a buzz of excitement that probably hasn't been seen since the days of Dave Wannstedt getting the team into the Top 15 in the polls. On the field, Pitt hasn't been particularly impressive, but is still 2-0. That beats what we've seen in the past as the two teams the Panthers beat, Youngstown State and Akron, upset them over the past two years under the largely aloof Paul Chryst. There's work to be done on both sides of the field, but beating those teams is a start, anyway. A lot of air has been taken out of this season with the loss of James Conner, but at this point there's still a healthy optimism.
2) It sounds like there's a bit of a quarterback controversy -- or at least some quarterback uncertainty -- with the Panthers. What are the strengths (and weaknesses) of Nate Peterman and Chad Voytik and who do you think is likely to start against Iowa on Saturday night? Or will both guys see action in that game?
CH: Definitely a quarterback controversy at this point. Peterman is largely seen as the better passer and the guy that can make big plays happen while Voytik is more of a two-dimensional guys with the ability to make plays with his legs. One thing I particularly like about Voytik is that he's really been less mistake-prone after winning the job last year. He had only one interception over the last six games of 2014 and got significantly better as the year went along. He played poorly in the opener this season and that helped open the door for Peterman, who was going to get a shot anyway. He's a transfer from Tennessee and that's where Pitt's new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was when he recruited him. Despite what was said in the offseason about it being Chad's job, his quick hook this year made it pretty apparent that the staff was going to give Peterman a look no matter what.
Peterman has gotten the first-team reps during the portion of practices that the media can view this week and it looks as if he's going to start to me. He also played almost all of last week's game against Akron so that seems to be the direction they're headed. I do expect Voytik to get a shot at some point as Narduzzi has said he's not against playing two guys right now, but his playing time may be limited if Peterman looks reasonable. Narduzzi also said that ideally they'd like to have one guy so this two-quarterback deal may not be a season-long thing.
3) This is the fourth time our teams have played one another since 2007... and it's also the fourth different Pitt head coach that Iowa has faced in that span. As Pitt fans, what's it been like to spend so much time on the coaching merry-go-round?
CH: Interesting, to say the least. Yeah, okay, it's sucked, too. The Wannstedt exit was somewhat, but not completely unexpected. The Todd Graham fiasco was certainly the most unexpected of the three coaches just because it came after one year and was something that no one saw coming. The book on him was that he would use the job as a stepping stone, but with his all-in attitude, no one expected he would be gone so quickly (after a 6-6 season, no less). Chryst looked to be here for the long haul, but after the Wisconsin job opened up, that was the one place Pitt fans knew he would likely leave to go. Narduzzi isn't an alum, but did grow up fairly close to here and played at nearby Youngstown State. He has developed a great relationship with the athletic director (who's also new) and that's something the past coaches didn't always have. Assuming he works out on the field, the expectation is that they hopefully have a guy that will stick around.
But the coaching carousel has mostly led to a great deal of angst anytime a job opens up where a coach has had any sort of tie-in. Heck, there was even gross overreaction when Brett McMurphy mentioned Chryst's name once the Michigan job opened up last year. That's pretty much where we're at here - P5 job open, mass panic.
4) Obviously losing an All America-caliber running back like James Conner is a huge blow, but how has his replacement, Qadree Ollison looked since taking over the starting running back job? His numbers (288 yards and two scores on 37 carries) are certainly impressive. What other offensive players should Iowa fans be aware of?
CH: Ollison has been a mixed bag so far - he had a huge game against Youngstown State with just over 200 yards, but came back to earth in a rainy game at Akron where the field was a mess. The funny thing was that he arguably entered the opener as the team's fourth back. Chris James was the primary backup, but had some injury issues. True freshman four-star recruit Darrin Hall had seemingly passed Ollison on the depth chart in camp partially because of Ollison's own injury issues. But once Conner went down and James sat out, his big game in the opener catapulted him to the starting spot.
I was a little surprised to see him named the starter even after that game because James had been a solid backup to Conner as a true freshman last year, but the coaches were obviously convinced. James sat out last week with an injury but is expected to play this week. With his return as well as Ollison not having a big game last week, I expect both guys to get carries - maybe even split them if James is close to 100%. The big thing the coaches have said is that they'll go with guys that are playing well at the time. If one of them gets off to a hot start, I expect Narduzzi to stick with them.
With all due respect to Ollison and company, the key guy is obviously wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd is expected to leave for the NFL after this year (his junior season) and is regarded as one of the top receivers in college football. He was suspended for Pitt's opener, but tied his career-high with 11 catches last week against Akron for 95 yards. Boyd is a playmaker that is by far the favorite target of the quarterbacks and he also fields punts. If the Panthers win on Saturday, he'll have something to do with it.
5) How has the Pitt defense looked so far this year? Pat Narduzzi put together some of the most fearsome defenses in college football while he was a coordinator at Michigan State; are the building blocks in place for him to do the same here? Which defenders do Iowa fans need to be wary of?
CH: The defense has looked pretty good so far. They gave up 37 points to Youngstown State, but 14 of those came late in the game on 70+ yard plays on an extremely hot day where I suspect the defense was getting worn down. The team started the game forcing punts after three-and-outs on four of the first five series and also had two fourth-down stops. They certainly had issues in the middle of the game, but played much better this past week against Akron, nearly pitching a shutout. It's early but the defense has been pretty decent - albeit against weaker competition. Most importantly - they've gotten a lot more pressure than they did last year. They rank 3rd in the nation with ten sacks when they had only 19 all of last year.
On the defensive line, Pitt has an improved pass rush over last year. The ends are solid in Rori Blair and Ejuan Price and tackle Tyrique Jarrett was named the ACC's Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week this past week. I'm not sure how good those guys will be over the course of the year since none have been stars to this point in their careers, but I believe all three are quality players. Having lost two of three starters at linebacker, that unit is a work in progress, but the guy to watch there is Nic Grigsby, who had a huge game in the opener (two sacks and ten tackles). The secondary is improved over last year and adapting pretty well to the more physical style being used by defensive coordinator Josh Conklin. Those guys said in the offseason they were excited to play that style and things have gone pretty good so far. One guy to watch is the one many fans are arguably the most excited about - true freshman Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead was Rivals' top recruit in Pennsylvania and got his first start of the season last week. He played well with 1 1/2 sacks and is only going to get better as the season goes along.
I'm sure Narduzzi wants more playmakers, but he is already getting things in place. In addition to Whitehead, Pitt will add four-star defensive end and Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix to the mix next year. Avonte Maddox is a starting cornerback as a true sophomore. The Panthers also look really stacked at linebacker where they've beaten out the likes of Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, and plenty of others for three very good players in Chase Pine (2016), Anthony McKee (2015), and Saleem Brightwell (2015). Recently, they beat out Penn State and Tennessee for local defensive lineman, Rashad Wheeler. They've even gotten a verbal from 2017 cornerback Exree Loe, who projects to be one of the top players in Pennsylvania. And of course, Pitt has some other quality young players on the roster and is still in competition for several other key local prospects for next year as well.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
CH: A Pitt win wouldn't surprise me much, but there are too many things working against them in this one for me to pick them. They have a quarterback controversy, are playing on the road, and facing what has the look of an excellent run defense. I do think the Panthers will have some success running the ball because the combination of Ollison, James, and Hall will yield some gains, but I also have concerns about the passing game, despite having Boyd. Narduzzi is also a first-time head coach and there are going to be some growing pains along the way. An underrated aspect, too, is that Pitt's kicking game has been inconsistent dating back to last season. In a tight game, that often makes the difference and if Pitt expects to win, they'll likely need kicker Chris Blewitt (yes, actual name - ALL THE JOKES) to come through. The past games have been close and I expect another tight one, but I have to take Iowa here - something like 24-20.
Thanks for being a good sport, CH, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped tomorrow. You can check out the Cardiac Hill crew at Cardiac Hill. You can also follow CH on Twitter at @PittPantherBlog. The Iowa-Pitt game is in Iowa City, IA on Saturday, September 19, and is scheduled to start at approximately 7:00 pm CT, with TV coverage from BTN.