Football drops second straight game, splits non-conference schedule

Five weeks have passed since the start of the college football season, and it’s safe to say that all Division I teams are now in mid-season form.

With that, Pitt has learned a lot about itself as a team, and, after dropping its game to Iowa last week 24-20 and bowing to Akron Saturday 21-10, the Panthers (3-2, 1-0 ACC) have begun to identify points of personal vulnerability.

One tendency Pitt head coach Paul Chryst discovered is that his defense has developed a knack for making bad running backs look good. Last week, Pitt couldn’t stop Iowa’s Mark Weisman in the second half of the loss, and, in Pitt’s 21-10 loss to Akron Saturday, the Panthers let the Zips amass a combined 136 yards rushing.

“They didn’t show us anything we had not prepared for,” Chryst said. “It’s execution.”

Coming into the game, the Zips did not have a player with more than 69 total rushing yards on the season, and their leading rusher was their starting quarterback, Kyle Pohl, who racked up yards exclusively on broken pass plays.

But Akron running back Conor Hundley ran for 148 yards on just 19 carries.

Chryst said after the game that Akron’s offense didn’t hold any surprises. Pitt’s defense just got flat-out beaten.

The defense left the field to several boo-birds as a result, but its offense was greeted with harsher “boos,” as members jogged to the sidelines following several second-half three-and-outs.

Despite Pitt’s defensive woes, its offense needed to score point, and couldn’t do so. In the end, the Panthers were penalized too severely and were too often on offense to give themselves a chance.

“I thought our defense started off doing some things to keep us in the game, but, offensively, we were stagnant,” Chryst said.

Hampered by an early-game shakeup of their star running back James Conner, whose toe was “bent backwards” on a run, the Panthers struggled to move sticks in the first quarter of the game.

Conner limped off the field after the first play of the game, and the sophomore sensation was held to just 28 yards in the first quarter of play.

In an effort to counter its poor running attack, Pitt’s offense failed to make up for its running issues through the air. Quarterback Chad Voytik ended Pitt’s week four loss to Iowa by going five of 11 with an interception, and, against Akron, he picked up exactly where he left off. Voytik threw behind many targets, and some of his throws went through or bounced off the hands of receivers. Plus, he was only able to successfully find Pitt’s top receiver Tyler Boyd once for a 12-yard gain.

Pitt took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter on a drive that started at Pitt’s 20-yard line, but Akron quickly tied the game on its next drive, highlighted by a 52-yard pass play.

In the second half, things became worse for Pitt. Hundley took a carry for 33 yards on Akron’s first play, setting up a touchdown. Down 14-7 to a mid-major at that point, the angered Panthers used their size advantage up front to slowly push the ball into the red zone when they got the ball back.

Voytik whipped a third-down pass into the hands of Boyd for a six-yard touchdown, but the play was called back because Pitt left guard Dorian Johnson was flagged for a holding penalty.

Pitt then failed to score on third-and-16, and settled for kicker Chris Blewitt nailing a field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10.

“We struggled getting third downs converted,” Chryst said. “They did a good job getting an extra helmet on us, schematically. We never got a rhythm going.”

In the fourth quarter, Akron chiseled downfield for its third touchdown, and Pitt couldn’t respond.

With 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Pitt in scoring position, Voytik threw an interception at Akron’s 17-yard line. When Pitt got the ball back off a forced punt, Voytik could not complete a home run pass attempt, and Pitt’s running backs and slot receivers failed to break free for a long run on several screen pass opportunities.

Voytik finished 20-of-34 for 220 yards. He was sacked three times. Conner turned in his worst performance of the season with 24 carries for 88 yards and zero touchdowns.

Voytik said the offense was up against extra coverage against Boyd and Conner. He said it was tough for Conner to find holes with five Akron defenders crowding the line of scrimmage quite often.

Pitt travels to face a much-improved Virginia team next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Chryst and many of his players pointed out that the team is still 1-0 in the ACC and that the Panthers still have their eye on an ACC Coastal Division Championship. According to Chryst, the Orange Bowl berth is what matters.

“Football tests a lot of things, and we’re at a point where we’ve got to tighten up the reigns a little bit,” Chryst said. “No doubt.”