Prediction: Panthers to make comeback against Georgia Tech


TPN file photo

The Panthers edged out Georgia Tech at Heinz Field in 2016 with a final score of 37-34.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

This weekend, Pat Narduzzi and his Panthers will wish to completely wipe the Penn State game from their memory — and they’ll have a good opportunity to do so against a vulnerable Yellow Jackets squad. The Panthers will end their three-game homestand against Georgia Tech Saturday afternoon, especially since both teams are 1-1 and looking to rebound from a loss in Week 2.

Georgia Tech fell short to South Florida in a high-scoring affair last weekend and the team is currently dealing with injuries to key offensive players. The Yellow Jackets will be without their star running back, KirVonte Benson, who suffered a knee injury against South Florida and will sit out for the remainder of the season. Benson made his presence known in the matchup last year, racking up 205 total yards of offense and two touchdowns in a 35-17 victory over the Panthers on his way to an All-ACC selection.

QB TaQuon Marshall may or may not play through a toe injury and the team’s triple-option offense will surely miss him if he is out. He was a major contributor in this matchup last season, rushing for 112 yards and two touchdowns, so his affliction should boost the Panthers’ chances.

As for the Pitt offense, they must put points on the board against a defense that gave up over 200 combined passing and rushing yards last week, as well as five offensive touchdowns.

Pitt failed to score more than once in sloppy conditions against Penn State. First-year punter Kirk Christodoulou mishandled holds on an extra point and field goal, sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett threw an interception just outside the red zone and the Panthers failed to convert on a crucial fourth down inside the 10-yard line. All these errors spoiled great first-half scoring opportunities against Penn State last Saturday.   

Some events from Pitt’s loss to Penn State will likely factor in for the offense against the Yellow Jackets.

Senior Qadree Ollison ran the ball well last week, with 21 carries for 119 yards. Darrin Hall and A.J. Davis completed seven and six carries, respectively, and all three runners averaged more than four yards per carry. Expect all three to receive carries, with Ollison seeing the bulk of the load under the direction of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.

Watson may also elect to utilize Pickett’s abilities as a rusher to throw off the Yellow Jackets defense. South Florida quarterback Blake Barnett racked up over 90 yards and two rushing touchdowns against Georgia Tech, so don’t be surprised to see Pickett put up similar numbers through the combination of designed runs and scrambles.

Pickett will also have a better day through the air than last week — simply because it can’t get worse than only 55 passing yards. No rain and a desire to bounce back should help Pickett have a solid day passing.

The Yellow Jackets defense gave up two passing touchdowns Week 2 but didn’t allow a 100-yard receiver on the day — though one receiver did have 99 yards. Six South Florida players had catches in their win, so Pickett should spread the ball around to his various receivers.

When it comes to the Panther defense, they’ll simply have to do better than allowing six total touchdowns. Granted, some of those scores occurred in the fourth quarter, as tends to happen when games get out of hand. But the defense did allow Nittany Lions running back Miles Sanders to run for 118 yards, while giving up a touchdown on the ground to Trace McSorley. They also played a sweep wrong, which ended in a 32-yard score. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates’ unit can expect similar trickiness from Georgia Tech’s lethal triple option.

With Benson out and Marshall hampered by his injury, the Yellow Jackets have other players to turn to that the Panthers must focus on. Backup QB Tobias Oliver rushed for 97 yards for three touchdowns, while Benson’s backup Jordan Mason piled on 95 more yards. Mason performed well in Benson’s stead during week one while he served a suspension.

Pitt’s defensive line needs to disrupt the offense and get in the backfield to make life easier on their teammates. The Panthers recorded nine tackles for loss for a total of 33 yards, while redshirt senior captain Quintin Wirginis recorded the lone sack last week. Look for them to build on that effort.

Wirginis and his fellow linebackers must read the offense correctly and stay home. Hamler scored on a sweep where the backers got sucked inside and McSorley on a fake handoff in Week 2, so this is an area in which there is hope for improvement. Expect lots of plays from the Mike linebacker, who made nine tackles against Penn State, and also from Elijah Zeise and Seun Idowu.

This will be quite an interesting game for the Panthers’ defensive backs despite the triple option’s emphasis on running the ball. This style of offense is meant to lull defensive backs to sleep with run after run, before going for the end zone when it’s least expected. As a captain, safety Dennis Briggs would do well to keep his position mates on their toes. Marshall connected with senior receiver Clinton Lynch for an 81-yard score last week, so the secondary cannot let him get behind them.

In general, Bates needs to ensure his defensive unit doesn’t allow many long drives. As mentioned earlier, triple-option offenses pray that a play hits eventually. If the Panthers consistently force three-and-outs, the Yellow Jackets won’t have as many opportunities and Pitt will frustrate Georgia Tech into turnovers, another inevitability of this offensive style.

Maurice Ffrench and Rafael Araujo-Lopes have a great opportunity to make something happen, as the Yellow Jackets’ kickoff unit gave up two return TD’s of almost 100 yards each. Christodoulou will benefit from the lack of rain and have a better day punting, forcing the Yellow Jackets to score on long drives.

As for penalties, Coach Narduzzi will keep his team in line this weekend. It is absolutely unacceptable to have 14 penalties for over 100 yards, especially when one results in a safety, and he knows it.

“Ultimately everything lays right on my chest. It starts with me,” Narduzzi remarked after Penn State, respectfully taking responsibility for the performance of his team. We’ll see a much more disciplined Pitt team across the board in this matchup.

Prediction: Coach Pat Narduzzi will look to bounce back in a big way, both from the Penn State beatdown and the defeat to the Yellow Jackets last season. Ollison will keep up the impressive ground game and Pickett will play well against a Georgia Tech defense that surrendered four total touchdowns to South Florida’s QB. The Panthers’ defense will bend, but not break, against the Yellow Jackets’ elusive triple option. Narduzzi and company turn on the Victory Lights Saturday night as the Panthers pick up their second win of the season and start off conference play on a high note.

Pitt: 27 Georgia Tech: 24


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