Pitt to face pass-happy Akron after losing its first game

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Pitt to face pass-happy Akron after losing its first game

By Ryan Bertonaschi / Senior Staff Writer

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Broken by separate calamities years ago, Pitt’s and Penn State’s football programs may have stopped the bleeding. 

Both teams now appear to be on the winning track, and Pitt fans finally get an opportunity to see how their Panthers (3-1, 1-0 ACC) might match up against the 4-0 Nittany Lions when mutual opponent Akron (1-2, 0-0 MAC) comes to Heinz Field Saturday.

Following Pitt’s Saturday afternoon game against Akron, a squad that lost to Penn State 21-3 several weeks ago, fans will be able to call up some of their Lion-loving co-workers on Sunday to compare, contrast and perhaps taunt if Pitt runs away with a blowout victory.

During the Sept. 6 game at Penn State, the Nittany Lions led 7-3 late in the third quarter but pulled away from Akron with two unanswered touchdowns to avoid the would-be scare. The Zips missed a red zone field goal and could not convert on two interceptions thrown by Penn State’s sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Akron has a noteworthy quarterback itself, albeit one who operates in a spread offense — junior Kyle Pohl, who will step under center Saturday. Pohl has molded the Zips’ experienced offense — which features eight of 11 returning starters from last season — into a potentially dangerous one through three games, averaging 286.3 yards through the air per game, good for 33rd in the nation.

“He’s athletic, he reads coverages well, he runs well, he’s just an all-around player,” Pitt senior linebacker Todd Thomas said during a press conference Wednesday.

But Pohl’s ability to rack up yardage doesn’t mean the Zips score often. In fact, over its past seven quarters, Akron’s first-team offense hasn’t scored a touchdown.

Moreover, Akron has gone 12 of 42 on third downs since its week one pounding of Howard, and it has scored just six times in 12 red zone appearances, an issue that contributed to the Zips’ loss in Happy Valley.

Akron relies heavily on Pohl, who drops back to pass on average 40 times per contest. The high passing rate is probably justified by the Zips’ pitiful rushing attack.

Akron’s leading rusher has just 69 yards, and that person is Pohl. Trailing the do-it-all quarterback on the ground are several running backs of different shapes, sizes and ages that have collectively run for just 205 yards.

To put that into perspective, Pitt’s sophomore bruiser James Conner has already amassed 699 rushing yards alone.

Pitt may be familiar with some of Akron’s players, as the Zips have three players who once starred in the WPIAL: freshman Tommy Woodson, a product of Gateway High School, tight end Michael Kish of Brentwood and quarterback Chandler Kincade from Blackhawk.

Kincade committed to Pitt as a sophomore in 2011, but, shaken by former coach Todd Graham’s departure, he backed out of his commitment a year later.

“I want to make sure wherever I go that I’m their guy,” Kincade told Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the time of his commitment.

Akron head coach Terry Bowden, son of former legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, is also familiar with Pitt. He grew up in Morgantown and played running back for West Virginia in the ‘70s. His father coached at West Virginia for the duration of Terry’s childhood before making his historical mark in Tallahassee.

“I remember everything about walking up to that old stadium,” Terry said Tuesday, referencing the hike up Cardiac Hill that ended at the south gates of Pitt Stadium.

Bowden adamantly defended the successes of his young quarterback Tuesday when he spoke to reporters, implying that his team is fine; it just needs to capitalize on drives.

“We’d like to run the ball better,” Bowden said. “But I look at Florida State, the No. 1 team in the country, and they got 13 yards rushing and beat Clemson, and [Florida State is still the No. 1 team in the country].”

Bowden added that the Panthers are a team that “is probably coming out mad as heck because they lost a game to Iowa that they were winning the entire game.”

Indeed, Pitt is coming off a 24-20 loss spawned by a second-half collapse that caused a sickening feeling in the stomachs of many Panthers.

Conner said Monday that senior safety Ray Vinopal gave Pitt’s locker room attendees a motivational talk for the ages following the Panthers’ crushing defeat. Vinopal told players that they’ve now experienced the hurting sensation that comes with a bad loss and that they don’t want to feel it again this season.

Thomas concurred. “We don’t want to see that feeling again. It’s just time to work harder and grind.”

Thomas led Pitt’s defense against Iowa with five solo tackles, including a tackle for loss.

“Now it’s just time to get back to winning again,” he said.

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