Hustle Belt: Okay, I've got to ask this. Do you feel that Akron's 21-10 win at Heinz Field in 2014 was a fluke? Why or why not?
Cardiac Hill: Many fans probably saw it that way but I did not. Despite a good start to the season, the Panthers weren't a very good team early on. They basically took advantage of a weak schedule and with virtually no passing game in the first half of the year, they didn't have the balanced attack that they developed later. Quarterback Chad Voytik was in his first season and it really showed in the first half of the year.
Of course, it's still a game Pitt should win in almost every circumstance. Games against MAC teams are far from gimmes, but the P5 programs not at the bottom of their conferences should be able to win them. Plus, Akron went on to a 5-7 season and that was really the highlight of their year, so this wasn't a case of running into a smaller program having a great run. But Pitt probably not taking the game as seriously as they should have coupled with the fact that they weren't all that good at that point in the year was a recipe for disaster.
Hustle Belt: The Panthers ran for 325 yards against Youngstown State last week, including 207 from Qadree Ollison on just 16 carries. What will the running back depth chart look like now with James Conner out for the year with an MCL injury?
Not sure yet and the coaches may not be sure, either. Pat Narduzzi didn't make a declaration during his weekly press conference on Monday, but he did say that he expects the top backup going into the opener, Chris James, to be ready to play. James himself was a little banged up and was held out of part of the game as well. Personally, I'd be surprised if Qadree Ollison jumps over James on the strength of one game (no matter how good it was) since James has been a very good backup. But one of those two guys will get the start and both should get plenty of carries going forward. True freshman Darrin Hall, who got some playing time in the opener, will also be more in the mix this season and should get carries on Saturday as the No. 3 back.
Akron's defense kept Oklahoma standout back Samaje Perine in check last week, as he gained just 33 yards on 11 carries. If the Zips do the same to Ollison and/or Conner, is Chad Voytik capable of beating Akron with his arm? Why or why not?
Well, the good thing about Voytik is that he'll have his top target back in Tyler Boyd. Boyd was out of Pitt's first game with a suspension and that's part of the reason why Voytik looked so bad. The quarterback was only 9-14 for 72 yards and 55 of those came on a poorly thrown ball. He has developed good chemistry with Boyd and was lost without him in the opener.
Voytik has been a capable quarterback for Pitt and played well over the last six games last year. But even with Boyd, he's not the kind of player to go out and sling the ball all over the field. He didn't have a single game last year where he threw for more than 250 yards and just isn't going to win a ton of games with his arm if he needs to. He is a mobile quarterback and as he proved last year, can break off long runs. But after a disaster of a first game against Youngstown State, he has a lot to prove.
The Pittsburgh defense gave up 37 points to FCS foe Youngstown State last week. A quick look at the box score shows that the Peguins didn't light up any statistical categories, but had quite a few big plays. What weaknesses in Pitt's defense can a running team like Akron give trouble?
The Pitt defense held up pretty well early on. After allowing a long opening drive, they held Youngstown State to a field goal and then forced punts on four of the next five series. The Panthers did a very good job in the first half and only gave up two field goals. Youngstown State grabbed a pick six to give them 13 points in the half, but their offense really did very little.
The problem for the defense came in the fourth quarter when they gave up 14 points on two big plays (a 75-yard run and a 77-yard pass). Part of me questions if the defense was just worn out by that point. There were several quick scores and not as much time to rest. It was also a really hot day with the temperature about 90 degrees. When you consider it was the first game of the year, the quick scores, and the temperature, conditioning issues wouldn't be that surprising.
The run defense wasn't great and as we saw last year, Akron was very successful in running the ball in a win at Heinz Field. And while new starter Nic Grigsby had a huge game for Pitt this weekend (two sacks and ten tackles), the Panthers are playing with two new starters at linebacker so they are still getting acclimated there. Preventing big plays on defense is the big thing to watch for this weekend.
Finally, what is your prediction for Saturday's game?
It's really difficult to pick against the major-conference teams in these sorts of scenarios, but Akron certainly has some things in its favor. They beat Pitt last year and having faced Oklahoma this year, they won't be intimidated. They also get the game at home and in the home opener, you have to expect fans to provide a good atmosphere. Pitt also finds itself trying to round into form. There are some injuries to players on the offensive line and the injury to Conner. Starting wide receiver Tyler Boyd will be playing his first game this year. Pitt also had some communication issues with players running into each other on two occasions (both, ironically, resulted in touchdowns). The Panthers are really just trying to work through some things.
All of that said, I'd probably still take Pitt here. The running game with or without Conner is solid and getting Boyd back into the lineup should really make Voytik more comfortable. If the defense can avoid the types of late breakdowns they suffered against Youngstown State, I could see a solid effort from them as well. I'll go with something like Pitt 31, Akron 20.
A big thanks to Anson at Cardiac Hill for answering some of my questions regarding Akron's upcoming game against the Panthers. Please, check out Cardiac Hill for all things Pittsburgh Panthers!