Underrated Penguins pose threat to Panthers


Chad Voytik stiff arms a Youngstown State player in the September 2015 game. (TPN File Photo)

By Ryan Zimba | Sports Editor

Five years ago to the day, the Youngstown State Penguins came into Heinz Field and handed the Pitt football program one of the most embarrassing losses in its history, 31-17.

The game marked the Penguins’ first-ever win over a Bowl Championship Series team, spoiling former head coach Paul Chryst’s debut. It wasn’t even close — the Panthers got outplayed for 60 minutes and never had a lead.

Pitt got revenge three years later in head coach Pat Narduzzi’s first game. But it wasn’t a convincing performance either, with the Panthers winning by just eight points.

Tomorrow, Narduzzi and the Panthers hope to have more success, but it won’t come easily against another well-coached Penguins team. Last season, Youngstown State was one of the best teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, finishing as the runner-up after falling to James Madison in the title game.

Quarterback Hunter Wells is returning for his senior year after taking over the starting job midway through last season, starting the final nine games. In three seasons he threw for 1,714 yards and 11 touchdowns to go along with five interceptions.

Last year, the Penguins tended to lean heavily on the run, rushing the ball on nearly 70 percent of their plays. Running backs Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz each ran for over 1,000 yards, but both graduated. Head coach Bo Pelini will most likely turn to Tevin McCaster, a junior from nearby New Castle, Pennsylvania, who ran for 11 touchdowns in 2016.

This style of offense would seemingly play in favor of the Panthers, who have excelled in rushing defense under Narduzzi — finishing 16th in yards allowed last season. But while Pelini likes to run the ball, he might opt to test the beleaguered Pitt secondary instead. The Panthers unit was horrible last year, and while Narduzzi has had another off-season to work with them, it’s still likely to be subpar.

The group returns senior cornerback Avonte Maddox, but will be without junior safety Jordan Whitehead — the 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year. Whitehead was suspended for the first three games of the season in August — along with linebacker Quintin Wirginis — and his absence will surely hurt the Panthers.

Sophomore Jazzee Stocker will most likely fill in Whitehead’s spot, starting alongside redshirt junior Dennis Briggs in the back. With no prior starting experience, these players will be counted on to step up, which could add to the struggles they already face.

On offense, the Panthers will look different from last year in a host of ways. First, the team has its third offensive coordinator in as many years, welcoming former Texas assistant Shawn Watson into the fold.

Also, quarterback Max Browne will make his Pitt debut after transferring from USC, while redshirt junior Qadree Ollison is expected to make the start at running back. A former ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, Ollison thrived in the absence of James Conner in 2015, rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was moved into a smaller role last season, but if he can regain his form, he can be a force in the backfield yet again.

Along with the stable of backs behind him, Ollison should be able to do some damage on the ground. The Penguins’ rush defense is capable, but considering the lesser competition they usually face, it’s hard to see them keeping up with the Panthers.

Last year, they gave up an average of 128.9 yards, good for 26th best in the FCS. However, in their only game against an FBS opponent, the West Virginia Mountaineers almost doubled that number — sprinting for 235 yards and 5.1 yards per carry in a 38-21 win.

This game is the definition of a trap game for the Panthers, with a largely underrated opponent coming to Heinz Field the week before the Pitt-Penn State rivalry in Happy Valley. Narduzzi has insisted his team is focused only on this week, and they’ll need to be in order to avoid another close game.

PREDICTION: In last year’s opener against the Villanova Wildcats, the Panthers opted to simplify their offense and overpower the Wildcats’ defense with a strong power running game. This was good enough to pull out a 28-7 win and also kept the team’s offense under wraps for the Penn State rivalry game.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Narduzzi chose to use that strategy again, meaning Ollison and the running backs should have a heavy workload. Pitt’s offensive line is one of the best in the ACC, and even without redshirt junior Alex Bookser — suspended for a DUI in May — they should be able to control the Penguins’ defensive front and lead the Panthers to victory despite their lackluster defense.

Panthers 31, Penguins 20.

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