Pitt looks to break three-game slump


Pitt lost its past three games as quickly as it won its first three games, so that leaves one question:

Which Pitt team will show up against Virginia Tech on Thursday night?

Will it be the Pitt team that bulldozed opponents behind running back James Conner? Or will it be the Pitt team that suddenly forgot how to block effectively and began committing way too many mistakes?

"We feel like enough is enough," Conner said. "It is a must-win game, and we just need to get back in the victory column. Some things went wrong, and we had some adversity the last couple weeks, but it’s time to get out of that slump we’re in. It was a much-needed bye week to focus on our goal, because it’s still attainable. We’re 1-1 in the ACC. Guys are ready to roll, and we’re excited for the challenge."

Much of the scrutiny has centered on the offense, which has been unable to attain much balance. There are several reasons for that.

Teams started loading the box more to stop Conner. He has not hit 100 yards in his past two contests, and his yards per carry dipped to 3.85. In his first three games against FBS opponents, Conner averaged more than 5 yards per carry.

Stopping Conner means relying on Chad Voytik in the passing game. But so far, Voytik has proven to be too inconsistent. In a 24-19 loss to Virginia, for example, Pitt went 4-of-13 on third down. Voytik threw on 11 of those downs and had only five completions. One was for a touchdown; but twice inside the red zone he threw incomplete on third down.

Pitt did have third-and-10 or longer on six of those downs, so the Panthers did not exactly put themselves in position for success. Voytik also threw a pick-six, which ended up being a huge play in the game.

Not all the blame falls on Voytik, though. Both coach Paul Chryst and Conner talked about receivers needing to do a better job winning one-on-one matchups.

"Each game we've had good runs, but we've got to be able to be cleaner with them all, and also we've got to do a better job on third downs and get more rush attempts and certainly got to do a better job of being more consistent in the throw game," Chryst said.

Inconsistency in the pass game also means a less effective Tyler Boyd, a 1,000-yard receiver last season. Pitt will not win many games if Conner and Boyd fail to score. In the three straight losses, they have one touchdown between them.

"We’re trying our best," Conner said. "Me and Tyler, we like to complement each other. We’ve just got to do it a little bit better."

The Pitt run defense has also had its share of struggles over the past three games, allowing 527 yards on the ground. In the first three, it allowed just 232 total.

There is little doubt the run game for both teams is going to be in the spotlight. Perhaps the downward trend in the Pitt run defense gives Virginia Tech some hope that it will be just fine even though it is missing its top three backs because of injury.

With Trey Edmunds, Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams out, J.C. Coleman and Joel Caleb will get the bulk of the carries. The unknown is whether they can be as effective as the top three backs had been to this point in the season. Because Michael Brewer will need an effective run game to help balance out the offense.

"It’s gut-check time," Pitt defensive tackle Darryl Render said. "They’re going to try and run, and that’s what we do, too. It’s going to be a challenge, but we embrace that challenge with open arms."