In anticipation of the showdown between the 1-2 Akron Zips and the 3-1 Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday, we caught up with Anson Whaley who manages the SB Nation Pitt blog Cardiac Hill. We'll be answering his questions over there soon, so make sure to check out their site and also follow them on Twitter.
Hustle Belt: What are your thoughts on the season so far and also the state of the program? The hot start was tempered a bit with last week's loss to Iowa, but it seems that Paul Chryst finally has some momentum going in a program that hasn't had a lot of stability.
Cardiac Hill: So far this season, Pitt has done what was expected coming in. I thought that they'd easily win their first two games (Delaware and FIU) and split Iowa and BC. That said, after the big start and Iowa's slow one, a 4-0 start was looking very possible. But at 3-1, I really can't complain too much since they've looked so good for the most part.
The Iowa loss was disappointing, but Pitt at least has the look of moving in the right direction. There's been a lot of angst after the Iowa loss - particularly since Pitt was favored to win that game and had a ten-point halftime lead. But overall, the program is trending upward. Despite Pitt having three straight 6-6 seasons and really not being a great sell, head coach Paul Chryst has recruited very well on the offensive end, landing several four-star players. In addition, many of those players have been on the offensive line and at running back - the two main areas that Chryst needs for his system to thrive.
There's been a true lack of quality on the defensive recruiting side, but as I've told our readers so many times, Chryst really was starting from scratch after the Mike Haywood/Todd Graham debacles. All in all, I think he's recruited well and the great thing is that Pitt is the youngest team in the FBS and still has a great chance to win eight games. By next season, they will have a chance to be very good despite a more difficult schedule. I'm not sure how far he'll take the program, but they look like a program poised to break the .500 level they've been at for several years.
HB: Just how important is running back James Conner to this team? It seems like the offense comes and goes directly through him and he's got the potential to be a future first round draft pick.
CH: With all due respect to All-World receiver Tyler Boyd, James Conner is the most important player on the team. Pitt's plan on offense is pretty simple - to run the ball. If Conner goes down, Pitt has other options, including four-star recruit and true freshman, Chris James, as well as senior Isaac Bennett, but neither have the talent that Conner does. He leads the FBS in rushing and has been the biggest part of the offense this year.
Tyler Boyd is an elite talent and is a lock to play in the NFL. But with a passing game that has been a little up and down, he's not quite as much of a factor as Conner is because the team runs the ball so much.
The NFL Draft is so quirky and with running backs being valued less and less, I'm not sure he's a first-round pick. But Conner's on pace for more than 2,000 yards this year and if he comes anywhere close to that and does it again next season, he'll be tough to pass up.
HB: Quarterback Chad Voytik has had his share of struggles during the first few games and his overall statistics aren't really that great. Does he need to play well in order to win this game? Or does he just need to lean on Conner and not make stupid mistakes?
CH: Pitt beat FCS team Delaware and FIU pretty handily, and also Boston College in a closer game, without Voytik having a big game. I think Pitt can defeat Akron without him throwing for a lot of yards, but the one thing that could make things interesting is always turnovers. I believe the Panthers will be fine without him having a big game, but if Akron can pressure him and is able to force him into turnovers, anything can happen in any given game.
If I'm Pitt, I let him air it out a little because they will need to rely on him more as the year goes on. But that said, I also give a heavy dose of Conner since that's the bread and butter and winning has to be the main focus, obviously.
HB: You pointed out in your recap of the Iowa game that the secondary is an issue for Pitt. Does Akron concern you at all given that the Zips will be passing on a majority of plays and are pretty efficient at running the spread offense?
CH: Yeah, absolutely. I wrote about that in my game preview on Monday and that should be a real concern for any Pitt fan. I'm not sure how great the Zips are and the bad loss they suffered against Marshall still makes me pretty confident. That said, a backup quarterback came into the second half of the game against Iowa and had a lot of success in moving the ball down the field.
The defensive backs haven't been very good and part of the problem is that the defensive line has gotten next to no pressure. That is certainly a factor, but the secondary has just been flat out beaten sometimes. They've had some bad pass interference calls, miscommunication, and sometimes, receivers are just flat outrunning them. The secondary isn't very good and if Pitt's line can get to the quarterback a little more, that would help things and cover up some of the flaws there. But yeah, facing a team that throws the ball a lot isn't exactly what Pitt fans want to see right now.
HB: Finally, what is your prediction for the game?
CH: Facing a team that passes the ball so much is not ideal for Pitt. And if there's a way for Akron to win this one, in addition to winning the turnover battle, that will be the way to do it. I do have some concern here, but I also expect the Panthers to be more focused in this one. One interesting thing is that Pitt players have said they've underestimated Florida International and also took the foot off the pedal against Iowa. They've shown that looking past teams has been a problem and that really can't happen.
My guess is that the Iowa loss will shake some sense into them and they'll get back to playing football. Akron's passing game does concern me, but I still expect a Pitt win here. The opening like was 17 1/2 points and that sounds about right with the Panthers coming off of a loss and getting the game at home. If they had won last week against Iowa, I think the game would have been closer. But coming off a game they feel they should have won, I expect they'll be focused to play a complete game. I'll take Pitt 34-20.
A big thanks to Anson over at Cardiac Hill. Make sure to bookmark their site this week as they preview the game.