No repeats of 2012 debacle in forecast for Panthers


Pitt running back James Conner will take the field Saturday for the first time since recovering from a torn MCL and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

By Steve Rotstein / Sports Editor

Pitt fans know all too well the perils that can come with taking the first opponent of the season lightly just because it is a Football Championship Subdivision — formerly I-AA — team.

In 2012, Paul Chryst was in his first game as head coach of the Panthers, and a win — good start to his tenure — seemed to be a sure thing with FCS opponent Youngstown State coming into town. Instead, it was Pitt who looked like the FCS team.

Neither Chryst nor the Pitt fans in attendance at Heinz Field expected 5-foot-7, 160-pound running back Andre Stubbs to rack up 132 total yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 31-17 Youngstown State victory, but that’s exactly what happened.

Fast forward four years, and another FCS opponent is coming to Pittsburgh for the regular season opener Sept. 3 at Heinz Field.

The Villanova Wildcats, led by coach Andy Talley, will travel to Pittsburgh for the 1:30 p.m. contest, having put up a competitive battle against the last three Football Bowl Subdivision — formerly I-A — teams they’ve played.

The Wildcats are no ordinary FCS team, and Talley –– in his 32nd and final season –– is no ordinary coach.

All that being said, the 2012 Panthers bunch that fell flat against the Penguins is no comparison for this 2016 group. On both sides of the ball, this team is too talented to fall into the same trap of four years ago.

At quarterback, redshirt senior Nathan Peterman gives the team all the leadership Tino Sunseri once provided, plus an added dimension of the ability to scramble and make plays outside the pocket.

At running back, Ray Graham was a stud for the Panthers, but there’s a reason James Conner is already on the Wall of Greats at Pitt’s South Side practice facility. Also, the depth provided by sophomores Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall — along with true freshman Chawntez Moss — gives the team a bevy of options if the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, Conner, needs a rest.

At wide receiver, Dontez Ford might not have the numbers to produce like Devin Street, but he is definitely capable of matching the current Dallas Cowboys receiver.

And with Pitt’s offensive line being ranked the best in the ACC by ESPN, the 2012 group is no comparison.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers no longer have NFL All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but they do have loads of playmakers at every other position. This year’s unit should be a much more well-rounded bunch.

Led by senior defensive end Ejuan Price and sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead, the 2016 Pitt defense is much better equipped to handle a speedy back like Stubbs –– which they will encounter in Villanova’s Jarrett McClenton.

Most importantly, Pitt has the continuity of playing in its second season under Narduzzi, who coached the Panthers to a closely contested 45-37 win in his first game last year against those same Youngstown State Penguins.

After avoiding another huge upset in his debut as head coach, Narduzzi guided Pitt to a 6-1 start and a top-25 ranking before finishing the season in second place in the ACC Coastal Division at 8-5.

The players seem to love playing for Narduzzi, and, after a full year of playing in his system, they should have a much better feel for what to expect starting in week one.

Although this is a much better team than the 2012 iteration, and maybe even better than last year’s group, this game is not a guaranteed win for the Panthers by any stretch. Expect Villanova to hang tough throughout a close first half before Pitt’s depth and experience wear the Wildcats out in the final 30 minutes.

Prediction: Pitt 33, Villanova 19

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