<
>

Planning for success: Pitt's strong start

9/1/2014

In an opening week when few ACC teams had much to feel good about, Pittsburgh was an emphatic exception.

Yes, it was just FCS foe Delaware on the receiving end of the Panthers' Week 1 fireworks, but after so many other teams struggled with lesser competition, Pitt was unquestionably dominant.

Chad Voytik wasn't asked to do much, but he did complete 10-of-13 throws, including two touchdowns in his first game as Pitt's new starting QB.

The defense allowed nothing to the overmatched Blue Hens, who mustered a meager five first downs and averaged less than 2 yards per passing attempt in the game.

The offensive line looked much improved from last year, pushing around the undersized Delaware front to the tune of 409 yards rushing -- a number that would've accounted for a full 25 percent of last year's rushing total over 13 games.

This was a game Pitt was supposed to dominate, and it did.

"That's what we've talked about," tailback James Conner said. "The teams we should beat, you need to make a statement. Last year, we let teams stick around. Things happen. But I think that's the first step in being a good team is expecting to win and then doing that."

Trouncing an FCS foe was Step 1 in Pitt's quest for the Coastal Division, but Step 2 is bigger. Pitt renews its series with Boston College on Friday, a rivalry dormant since the days of the old Big East.

Boston College looked solid in its own right Saturday, stomping UMass 30-7 behind a solid debut from new QB Tyler Murphy (173 passing yards, 118 rushing, two touchdowns).

The Panthers will be looking to develop some consistency. Pitt didn't win consecutive games after September last season. At the center of last year's inconsistency was Conner. He topped 100 yards rushing four times last season, and Pitt was 3-1 and averaged 41 points in those games. In his other eight games, however, Conner averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, the Panthers won just three times, and they averaged a meager 18 points per game.

It was a lesson learned, both for Conner and the team, and he doesn't expect to repeat the same mistakes in 2014.

"It's a big key. I don't want there to be any issues with consistency," Conner said. "I've got a year under my belt. I know what to expect now. I worked hard this offseason knowing that I don't want to be up and down anymore. I've got to make every game a good game."

He'll have help from a line that promises to be much improved from a year ago, when Pitt allowed 91 tackles for loss and coughed up the most sacks of any team in the ACC.

The Delaware game was a small step, but an important one. Pitt's offensive line was, on average, three inches taller and 38 pounds heavier than Delaware's defensive front, and the Panthers looked every bit the physically-dominant unit those measurements suggest. But Boston College features a more seasoned and athletic group on defense.

"There was a good vibe all throughout camp with the O-line," Conner said. "They worked really hard, put the time and effort into really dedicated themselves. They had a great game, and they've got some more experience, and that's a good group."

Voytik, too, figures to face a far bigger test this week. His 13 pass attempts were a good way to get his feet wet as the starter, but it was also a sharp change from the role Tom Savage had a year ago, when he averaged 30 attempts per game.

Still, Voytik's job can be made far easier if Conner and the ground game can turn in another strong outing. Last year, no ACC team was better against the run in conference play than BC, which allowed just 3.0 yards per rush. The Eagles have lost a lot of talent up front, and Pitt has gained experience. The Week 2 showdown should be an excellent test of just how ready the Panthers are to challenge for a division crown in 2014.

"As we've said, why not us this year?" Conner said. "But it's the first ACC opponent, and we've got to come ready."