Facing a running back that has the title of All-America on his resume, and another who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, Villanova’s defense had a lot on its hands.
Although the Wildcats put up a stalwart effort in trying to contain the Panthers’ backs, they couldn’t muster enough production on the other side of the ball to keep up with Pittsburgh.
The game began as a defensive duel, with both teams scoreless after the first quarter. However, once the Panthers were able to find the end zone first, it was the beginning of the end. They went on to win 28-7, after scoring a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter to fuel them for the rest of the game.
Pittsburgh running back James Conner, a 2014 All-American who overcame a knee injury and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that left him sidelined last season, was the star of the show in his first game back.
The Villanova defense was certainly keyed in him as it tried to stop the run-heavy Pitt offense. While he only had 53 yards on 17 carries, his two touchdowns in the second quarter broke the tense stalemate. First, he stiff armed his way to the end zone on a three-yard rush to put Pitt on the board midway through the quarter. Later, seconds before halftime, quarterback Nathan Peterman found Conner in the end zone. The redshirt junior made the catch in traffic and held on for a nine-yard receiving touchdown.
It was an unfortunate ending to the first half for the Wildcats, who trailed by 14 going into the break. Their offense was kept in check and struggled to score, as they were held to just 105 yards of offense in the half.
The Panthers continued to foster their first half momentum to begin the second. Quadree Henderson returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to give Pitt a 21-0 lead.
After another stalled drive for Villanova, the defense was able to get to work. Jeff Wiley forced a fumble on the ensuing Panther drive that was recovered by Rob Rolle. Rolle scooped the ball up and ran it back for a touchdown. It would be Villanova’s only touchdown of the game, and the first fumble recover touchdown for the ‘Cats since 2013.
Pitt added another touchdown for insurance with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. This time, Peterman connected with Jester Weah for a 16-yard touchdown.
Villanova finished with the game with only 172 yards of total offense. Zach Bednarczyk completed 16-of-31 passes (51.6 percent) for 119 yards. He also had one interception. Tight end Ryan Bell caught six passes for 52 yards. Javon White led the ground game with 13 carries for 37 yards.
The Wildcats were mainly concerned with stopping the run game and challenged Peterman to throw. Regardless, the Panther signal caller had a decent day under center. He went 19-for-32 (59.4 percent) and had a pair of touchdowns, with no interceptions. Kicker Chris Blewitt missed one field goal attempt from the 39-yard line, and had another blocked by Villanova defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon.
The Wildcats will look to bounce back next week, as they host Lehigh for their home opener. The game will be on Saturday, September 10, with kickoff at 6 p.m.