Pat Narduzzi finally took a head coaching job this year and I'm not sure there's a better fit for the blue collar, defensive minded coach. Pitt has been a revolving door for coaches over the last decade but Narduzzi is the first guy that seems to fit the old school feel of Pittsburgh. Pitt is holding on to a chance of making it into the conference championship game. UNC would have to lose twice for that to happen, but we all know that crazy things happen in college football.
Nathan Peterman took over at quarterback for Pitt early in the season, and he hasn't looked back. Peterman is playing about as well as any quarterback in the conference and no team needed better QB play than Pitt. The Panther offense lost it's best player when James Conner tore knee ligaments in the first game of the season. When that happened, Pitt needed the passing game to be consistent. Peterman has been exactly that. In conference games, Peterman is completing 66% of his passes and he hasn't thrown an interception. Peterman is also a fairly mobile guy with 323 rushing yards when sacks are taken out. Even though he has taken 20 sacks on the year, his sack rate is just above seven percent. That's the same as Kyle Bolin's and I would honestly compare them when it comes to avoiding the rush. They won't take off and score, but they can run away from pressure and make a play. Peterman might be the single most important player in this game.
Narduzzi is a defensive coach and that means that he loves to run the football. Conner went down and no one really knew where Pitt would go for that feature back but Qadree Ollison has done well to help lessen the blow from Conner's injury. Ollison is a big back at 230 pounds but he can really run when he gets into the open field. He is in no way Conner, but he has been plenty good in his absence. Ollison won't make a lot of guys miss but if UofL's tackling issues rear their head, he will make them pay. Freshmen safety Jordan Whitehead has been playing both ways for the last few weeks and he's a great compliment to Ollison. Whitehead was a really good running back in high school and Jim Chaney decided to give him a shot at adding a new wrinkle to his offense.
The best wide receiver in the ACC and one of the best in the country lines up for Pitt in Tyler Boyd. Boyd is a true "go-go guy" as he's averaging over seven catches a game even though the entire stadium is expecting them to throw his way. Boyd has been targeted on 38% of Pitt's total passes and he's catching nearly 75% of those passes. Chaney lines Boyd up all over the field. He'll be outside on one play. In motion from the slot on the next play. Then he'll be in the backfield on the next. Along with with Whitehead, Pitt has started to utilize Boyd more in the running game as the season has gone on. Jet sweeps, speed sweeps, reverses, wildcat runs, and pretty much anything else you can think of have been used to get the ball to their best player and he's averaging seven yards per carry when running it. His 79 yards rushing last week really stand out as they did a very good job in coverage on him. Chaney has done a great job with getting his best players the ball and Louisville will have to scheme for it.
The other receivers on the team have really stepped their game up as of late. Zach Challingsworth has become a recent favorite of Peterson's and he's made a few really impressive catches over the last few weeks. Dontez Ford is the second leading receiver for the Panthers and he is a big kid. Ford looks more like a tight end but can run pretty well for his size. Pitt receivers have shown a great ability to use their size. One thing I've noticed this year is that UofL has faced some bigger receivers but not many of them really utilized their obvious advantage. I don't think that will be the case Saturday. J.P. Holtz is really the guy to look out for. The tight end is averaging over fifteen yards per catch on the year and he has four touchdowns. He's a redzone threat as well as a really good player down the seams. Keith Kelsey spent a lot more time in coverage last weekend and he struggled. If he's asked to do the same this week, Pitt's options will be a bigger challenge than Virginia's.
The Pitt offensive line has been solid but not great. Dorian Johnson was a very highly rated tackle coming out of high school but Pitt moved him inside to guard. He plays opposite of Alex Officer who was recruited heavily by Clint Hurtt when he was at Louisville. The line really has four players that have played well from what I've watched and a center that can't quite do the things the offense asks of him. Artie Rowell is asked to pull on some run plays and get outside on some screen plays and reverses. Rowell moves well for a 300-pounder but he just can't get out in space fast enough to have the time to break down against smaller guys. By the time he's there, the runner is right on his heels and he's nothing more than an inconvenience instead of being a wall. Rowell isn't a bad player and I think he does just fine as a blocker on traditional plays, but he has definitely made some of the mistakes you see when guys are overwhelmed by the competition they face. That' something to watch for this weekend.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Nathan Peterman, RB Qadree Ollison, WR Tyler Boyd, TE J.P. Holtz, LG Dorian Johnson