Pittsburgh Panthers

Pitt has potential for upward mobility or slumping into ACC cellar

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz is displeased after talking to field judge Ben Vasconcells about a call during the second half of their game against Pittsburgh at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won, 31-27. (The Gazette/Jim Slosiarek)
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz is displeased after talking to field judge Ben Vasconcells about a call during the second half of their game against Pittsburgh at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won, 31-27. (The Gazette/Jim Slosiarek)

The fifth installment of a series ranking Iowa’s 12 opponents for the 2014 season: No. 8 Pittsburgh


Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference

2013 record: 7-6 (3-5 ACC Coastal; beat Bowling Green 30-27 in Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl)

Returning offensive starters (8): WR Tyler Boyd, T T.J. Clemmings, T Adam Bisnowaty, G Matt Rotheram, C Artie Rowell, TE J.P. Holtz, TE/HB Jaymar Parrish, TB Isaac Bennett

Projected starting offense: QB Chad Voytik, so., 6-1, 210 OR Trey Anderson, jr., 6-0, 195; RB Isaac Bennett, sr., 5-11, 205 OR James Conner, so., 6-2, 230; TE/HB Jaymar Parrish, so., 6-2, 230; TE J.P. Holtz, jr., 6-4, 245; LT Adam Bisnowaty, so., 6-6, 300; LG Matt Rotheram, sr., 6-6, 330; C Artie Rowell, jr., 6-2, 305; RG Dorian Johnson, so., 6-5, 290 OR Gabe Roberts, so., 6-5, 305; RT T.J. Clemmmings, sr., 6-6, 305

Returning defensive starters (5): DE David Durham, LB Anthony Gonzalez, LB Todd Thomas, S Ray Vinopal, CB Lafayette Pitts

Projected starting defense: DE David Durham, sr., 6-1, 255; DE Ejuan Price, jr., 6-0, 230 OR Shakir Soto, so., 6-3, 255; DT Darryl Render, jr., 6-2, 285; NT Khaynin Mosley-Smith, jr., 6-0, 305; MLB Matt Galambos, so., 6-2, 215; WLB Todd Thomas, sr., 6-2, 230; SLB Anthony Gonzalez sr., 6-3, 225; CB Lafayette Pitts, jr. 5-11, 295; CB Trenton Coles, so., 6-3, 175 OR Titus Howard, so., 6-1, 180; FS Ray Vinopal, so., 5-10, 200; SS Terrish Webb, so., 5-11, 170

Returning specialists (4): K Chris Blewitt, so., 5-9, 170; LS David Murphy, jr., 6-1, 230; KR Lafayette Pitts, jr., 5-11, 195; PR Kevin Weatherspoon, sr., 5-10, 175

Other specialists: P Ryan Winslow, so., 6-5, 205

Key losses: DT Aaron Donald, QB Tom Savage, WR Devin Street, T Juantez Hollins, LB Shane Gordon, NT Tyrone Ezell, CB K’waun Williams

Key additions: WR Adonis Jennings, 6-3, 190 (Sicklerville, N.J.); RB Chris James, 5-9, 212 (Niles, Ill.); OL Mike Grimm, 6-6, 328 (Bethel Park, Pa.); OL Alex Bookseer, 6-6, 295 (Mount Lebanon, Pa.); QB Alex Bertke, 6-5, 210 (Maria Stein, Ohio)

2013 review: Pittsburgh struggled to adjust in its first ACC season but still qualified for a bowl game. The Panthers were selected for a high-profile ACC debut against Florida State but were dismantled 41-13 on Labor Day night. By the end of the season, that didn’t look like such a bad loss considering FSU’s eventual national championship.

The Panthers posted a few good wins, besting Coastal Division champion Duke, topping Notre Dame 28-21 and earning bowl eligibility with a 17-16 win against longtime rival Syracuse. But that was one of only two league victories for the Panthers; the other came at the expense of Virginia, which was winless in ACC play.

Pittsburgh boasted the ACC defensive player of the year and NFL first-round draft pick in defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who had an astonishing 28.5 tackles for loss, including 11 sacks. He also had 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. But he accounted for about half of Pitt’s sack total, and the Panthers allowed more than 27 points per game.

Vagabond QB Tom Savage settled into a nice final season, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards, 21 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Houston Texans. Returning WR Tyler Bond caught 85 passes for 1,174 yards, ranking third in the ACC in both categories. Pitt running backs James Conner and Isaac Bennett rushed for 799 and 797 yards, respectively, last year.

2014 schedule: A30 Delaware; S5 at Boston College; S13 at Florida International; S20 Iowa; S27 Akron; O4 at Virginia; O16 Virginia Tech; O25 Georgia Tech; N1 Duke; N15 at North Carolina; N22 Syracuse; N29 at Miami

Key Stretch: Pittsburgh has a chance to start strong, playing only two bowl teams among its first six opponents. But the vital portion of its schedule begins in mid-October. The Panthers host three consecutive ACC Coastal Division opponents and each will figure into the divisional race. Pitt plays host to Virginia Tech on Thursday, Oct. 16, then hosts Georgia Tech on Oct. 25. On Nov. 1, the Panthers face Duke at home. All three teams competed in bowl games last year and posted winning league records. If Pitt wants to contend, it needs a good showing in those three home games.

Trap game: Before Pittsburgh greets its key stretch of games, it first travels to Virginia. The Cavaliers were 0-8 in ACC play last year, but it outplayed Pitt in a 14-3 loss. The Panthers scored a pair of first-quarter touchdowns on short fields following turnovers. Virginia held Pitt to eight yards rushing on 35 carries, and QB Tom Savage completed just 13 of 31 passes and was sacked seven times. Chances are, Virginia will be playing for Coach Mike London’s job and this game is pivotal, especially at home. It has a dangerous vibe to it.

Glass half-full: Pittsburgh returns enough starters and if either Chad Voytik or Trey Anderson (or freshman Adam Bertke) becomes a valuable starter at quarterback, the Panthers have a shot at quietly moving up the ACC standings. Of Pittsburgh’s first six opponents, only Iowa won at least eight games last year, and Pitt plays the Hawkeyes at home. If WR Tyler Boyd builds off his tremendous freshman season, Pitt has an outside shot at competing for the Coastal Division title. A few breaks could vault the Panthers into a winner-take-all ACC championship date against either Florida State or Clemson, teams with which Pitt does not face during the season.

Glass half-empty: It all starts at quarterback. If Voytik or Anderson struggle early, Pitt could enter ACC play sputtering. Although the schedule doesn’t look overbearing, only one team on its ACC schedule — Virginia — missed out on a bowl last year. On paper that lumps the Panthers in with everybody else. An inexperienced quarterback could make just enough mistakes to get you beat. If that happens, Pitt could miss a bowl bid and place Coach Paul Chryst on the hot seat.

The Iowa angle: Pittsburgh has become the de facto final major opponent the Hawkeyes will play outside of its league and state. The Panthers return to Iowa City next fall, then the Big Ten moves to nine games beginning in 2016. Iowa has a contract with Iowa State that runs through 2021, which leaves just two regular-season games to schedule annually. In years where Iowa plays five home Big Ten games, it will play at ISU. Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta mandates the school must have seven annual home games, which means the other two likely are staged at Kinnick Stadium with no chance at return trips. Therefore the Iowa-Pittsburgh series is somewhat the end of an era.

Of course there’s no need for nostalgia between the programs. They’ve played five times historically and just twice in the last 62 years. But both games were highly competitive and produced memorable moments.

In 2008, Iowa was embroiled in a quarterback controversy. Jake Christensen started the game, Ricky Stanzi played the second quarter and Christensen finished the game. Iowa lost 21-20, prompting Coach Kirk Ferentz to start Stanzi the rest of the season. Stanzi guided Iowa to a 6-1 finish that year and ultimately three bowl victories. In 2011 at Iowa City, the Hawkeyes trailed Pittsburgh 24-3 late in the third quarter. Junior quarterback James Vandenberg then rallied Iowa to the greatest comeback in school history, throwing for 399 yards in a 31-27 win. After the 24-3 deficit, Vandenberg completed 17 of 20 passes for 217 yards. At one point he hit 10 straight passes spanning three drives.

Quotable: “I think both Chad Voytik and Trey Anderson got a lot of work this spring. They’ve started to take command of the offense a little bit and they’ve got to have a great summer — throwing, they can do a lot of film study on their own — and it’s a great time for them because all that learning they can do. I think they’ve got a really good foundation and I think they know what to look for when watching film. We’ll help guide them but they’ve got to spend a lot of time at their craft.” — Pittsburgh Coach Paul Chryst

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