PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh linebacker Todd Thomas has seen plenty of things during his three years with the Panthers.
Six head coaches. A couple of miserable trips to Birmingham for a bowl game. Not exactly the kind of memories Thomas wants to hold onto.
Finally, it seems, things are changing. The Panthers (2-1, 1-1 ACC) can put together their first three-game winning streak since 2010 with a victory over Virginia (2-1) on Saturday, perhaps Pitt’s first true test to see where it falls on the grid in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
A victory also would give the Panthers something they’ve lacked in years: momentum.
“Since I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve been 2-1, we always start off 1-2 or 0-and-something,” Thomas said. “Coach Chryst is trying to get the program turned around he’s definitely headed in the right direction.”
Technically, Thomas is wrong, though it’s hard to blame him. The Panthers began 2011 with wins over Buffalo and Maine under Todd Graham. Of course, Graham’s abrupt departure after one season has been blocked out by the players he left behind.
Chryst’s rebuilding project is starting to gain steam. Pitt’s offense is blossoming under senior quarterback Tom Savage and wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Devin Street. The Panthers outlasted Duke in a 58-55 last week in a game that featured the kind of fireworks few thought possible a month ago. The emergence of Boyd and freshman running back James Conner has helped, so has Savage’s well-traveled (and still big-time) arm.
The Cavaliers are wary but also optimistic. Virginia has sandwiched victories over BYU and VMI around a 59-10 pratfall against No. 2 Oregon. They’ve started to find themselves behind quarterback David Watford as they head onto the road for the first time this season.
Five things to look for as two teams try to stamp themselves as challengers to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in a wide-open division.
Watford’s approach: The redshirt sophomore said this week that he needs to learn to trust his speed when given an opportunity to pull the ball down and run, and to trust himself when there are opportunities to throw the ball downfield. Adding those elements to Virginia’s offense would likely opens things up for a better running game. Watford passed for 206 yards and two scores against VMI and is becoming more involved in the running game.
Pitt getting stops: For all of the success experienced by Savage and company, things haven’t been quite so stellar on the other side of the ball. Pitt allowed Duke to nearly erase a 23-point second-half deficit. Defensive coordinator Matt House said his players need to find a way to be more disciplined but points out the Panthers did force four turnovers while building a huge lead.
The trenches: Virginia’s defensive line is the strength of the unit, and with Savage being a classic pocket passer, the battle between the Panthers’ offensive line and the Cavaliers’ defensive front will surely be critical in determining if Savage has time to keep to keep Boyd and Street the league’s most dynamic pass-catching combination. After getting pushed around against Florida State in the opener, the Panthers have kept Savage’s jersey pretty clean the last two weeks.
Run james run: While Boyd’s quick rise to budding star was expected, Conner has been a revelation. At 6-foot-2, 230-pounds Conner is built more like a linebacker but has an explosive burst of a much smaller player. Conner is averaging 6.9 yards per carry and making the abrupt departure of Rushel Shell in the offseason a mere footnote instead of an obstacle. “He’s big but I think he’s an athletic player,” Chryst said. “I’m glad he’s able to make some guys miss.”
Staying poised: The Cavaliers have yet to play on the road this season, where they were 1-4 a year ago. Minimizing mistakes early will be a key. Virginia turned it over four times at home against the Ducks, one of the main reasons they were buried so quickly. The Cavaliers’ minus-five turnover margin is also the worst in the 14-team ACC. London is hoping a more aggressive approach will help. “It’s more of a mindset to keep talking about, guys rallying to the ball,” he said. “The more you’re aggressive in that manner, the more good things that can happen to you.”