(#22 in FCS) Villanova Wildcats vs. Pittsburgh Panthers
When: Saturday, September 3, 2016, at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Coverage: ACC Network Extra
Pitt’s Previous Season Record: 8-5
Key Players for Pitt: #24 James Conner (6-2, 235) RS Jr., RB; #37 Quadree Ollison (6-2, 230) RS So., RB; #4 Nathan Peterman (6-2, 225) RS Sr., QB; #5 Ejuan Price (6-0, 255) RS Sr., DE; #9 Jordan Whitehead (5-11, 190) So., SS;
Scouting Report: The Pitt Panthers will look to continue the success they found under second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi led the Panthers to the Military Bowl last season, before falling to Navy. However, the Panthers will have the services of their top running back, who helped make them a mean-machine offensively two years ago. 2014 All-American James Conner will look to explode onto the scene as he did in his sophomore season, when he rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. Conner is already amongst the best in Pitt history, with 36 career touchdowns (second all-time in Pitt history, behind Pro Football and College Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett). A knee injury, combined with a Hodgkins Lymphoma diagnosis, put his 2015 season to rest but don’t overlook him. He’s healthy and back in good shape. Conner is a beast of a runner who prefers to run through his opponent. He is excellent at running between the tackles and can absorb hits while dealing his own damage. Look for him to be a stellar challenge to a Villanova defense that excelled in stopping the run last year.
If he gets tired, Narduzzi can relish in the fact in knowing he has a quality backup, if you can even call him that. Quadree Ollison, who took Conner’s place as RB1 last year, ran for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 212 carries last year–including a 207 yard performance in last year’s opener against Youngstown State. For his efforts, he earned the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. Like Conner, Ollison is a physical runner who thrives in between the tackles, always gaining yards after contact. Expect Ollison and Conner to split carries, with Conner talking the bulk of them. As long as Ollison is in the runningback rotation, Villanova’s defense will be on its heels. With a pair of returning all-conference offensive linemen, they will have the protection they need.
Quarterback Nathan Peterman will be under center and will look to guide an average, yet efficient, passing game. Last year, Peterman proved to be a solid game manager, passing for 2,287 yards, along with 20 touchdowns to eight interceptions (138.6 passer rating overall). He didn’t score much, but he seldom turned the ball over as well. Except for a few games where he absolutely shined last year (vs. Duke and Louisville), he was very average. Expect Peterman to be just enough to keep the ‘Cats honest, but not enough to change the tide of the game. However, the play action pass can be very lethal if the Conner-Ollison tandem can establish the ground game.
Defensively, the Panthers have a few stars who will make things very interesting for the offense. All-ACC defensive end Ejuan Price is one particular stand out. Last year, Price gained 19.5 tackles for loss (second in the ACC and second nationally), and 11.5 sacks (0.88 sacks per game, eighth nationally in 2015). Price is a freak of nature athlete who excels on the edge, and is great at disrupting plays. The Wildcats’ blocking schemes will have to make him their focal point.
The Panther secondary also has a young star in sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead, who was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. Whitehead set a Pitt true-freshman record last year in total tackles, with 109. A candidate for the Paul Hornung award last year, Whitehead showed versatility and a ballhawking defender. He will give Zach Bednarczyk and the offense a tough time on the ground and in the air. Expect him to elevate his game to even higher heights this season.
Outlook: This is going to be a much tougher game than last year’s debut against Connecticut. The Panthers are a very physical team that definitely have a size advantage over the ‘Cats. Although senior veterans Tanoh Kpassagnon, Brad Seaton, Nico D’Angelo, and Austin Calitro lead the team, the departure of Don Cherry, Cam McCurry, Kevin Gulyas, and other long-time starters on both ends of the ball will lead to a number of new guys experiencing trial by fire. Javon White is back in action after missing the remainder of last season with a broken leg. However, linebacker Corey Majors and running back Matt Gudzak are listed as out, while cornerback Malik Reaves is questionable for Saturday. Bednarczyk will have to carry this offense, as coach Andy Talley has spoken highly of his development in training camp. He will definitely be the focal point in getting points on the board. While he has previously stepped up in big time games, I don’t think he will be enough to cause a shocker.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 35, Villanova 17