The Pitt News

Superlatives highlight highs and lows of 2015 Pitt football season

Qadree+Ollison%2C+Tyler+Boyd%2C+James+Conner%2C+Chad+Voytik%2C+Pat+Narduzzi%2C+and+Jordan+Whitehead+earn+superlatives+for+the+football+season.++Photos+by+Jeff+Ahearn+%26++Wenhao+Wu
Qadree Ollison, Tyler Boyd, James Conner, Chad Voytik, Pat Narduzzi, and Jordan Whitehead earn superlatives for the football season.  Photos by Jeff Ahearn &  Wenhao Wu

Qadree Ollison, Tyler Boyd, James Conner, Chad Voytik, Pat Narduzzi, and Jordan Whitehead earn superlatives for the football season. Photos by Jeff Ahearn & Wenhao Wu

Qadree Ollison, Tyler Boyd, James Conner, Chad Voytik, Pat Narduzzi, and Jordan Whitehead earn superlatives for the football season. Photos by Jeff Ahearn & Wenhao Wu

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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Pitt football navigated its shares of peaks and valleys this season, with a 2-4 finish dampening the excitement of a 6-1 start.

With so many twists and turns along the way, an effective way to summarize the Pitt football season is through superlatives. These monikers will recognize the apexes and nadirs of the team’s first campaign under Pat Narduzzi’s leadership.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: QADREE OLLISON, running back

When star running back James Conner suffered a season-ending torn MCL in the first week of the season, it was Ollison — not running backs Chris James or Darrin Hall — who stepped up and produced for the Panthers. Originally starting the season as a third-string tailback, the redshirt freshman outperformed all expectations, earning second-team All-ACC honors and the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year award. His 1,121 rushing yards were the fifth-most ever by a Pitt first-year player, and he expects to continue his success next year, with his playing time likely reliant on Conner’s recovery from his knee injury and his more recent Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: CHAD VOYTIK, quarterback

Part of the frustration with Voytik comes via a lack of opportunity for the redshirt junior quarterback. The mobile signal caller only started three games on the year before Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman supplanted him. Voytik flashed signs of real progress toward the end of last season under former head coach Paul Chryst, but he stagnated in limited snaps. Voytik announced his intention to transfer as a graduate student, indicating his Pitt career will end with a whimper.

BEST MOMENT: Fake punt against Syracuse

In the fourth quarter, down seven points, the Panthers were on the verge of blowing their chance to move into the Associated Press Top 25. But Narduzzi provided indelible proof of a mindset change at the headset for the Pitt football program, faking a punt with punter Ryan Winslow. Winslow completed the pass for a first down, and the Panthers marched down the field, scored and eventually won on a Chris Blewitt field goal. The play call signified the beginning of a more aggressive football season for the Panthers.

WORST MOMENT: Iowa nails a 57-yard field goal to beat Pitt

While the Panthers’ Military Bowl loss to Navy and their home defeat to UNC were dispiriting performances, the most singularly deflating moment of the season was clearly Marshall Koehn’s game-winning 57-yard field goal for Iowa, marking the first loss of the Narduzzi era. The kick elicited memories of heartbreak of years past, leaving Pitt fans with a creeping “more of the same” feeling. Narduzzi and the Panthers did rebound, and Iowa became a more formidable opponent with time — the Hawkeyes finished 12-2 — but the moment built a shaky foundation of trust after two unconvincing victories to start the season.

MOST PROMISING: JORDAN WHITEHEAD, defensive back

There isn’t really any debate here: Whitehead was remarkable as a true freshman, proving why recruiting website Rivals ranked him the top recruit in Pennsylvania last season. As a safety, Whitehead led the team in tackles with 109, also recording an interception and seven pass deflections. While also thriving in limited usage on offense, Whitehead was every bit the dynamic player Pitt thought it would get in him. It’s an exciting proposition to soon watch Whitehead build on what already was a stellar first-year campaign.

BIGGEST MYSTERY HEADED INTO NEXT SEASON: PAT NARDUZZI

With another year to further implement his system, just how high is the ceiling for the Narduzzi-led Panthers? The new coach won eight games with a lot of leftover talent from previous coaching staffs. How will his first full class of handpicked talent affect the team’s output? The schedule will be much more difficult next season, with road games at Clemson and Oklahoma State and non-conference matchups against Penn State and Marshall. How Narduzzi’s team handles those opponents will not by any means set his skills as a talent evaluator and recruiter in stone, but will serve as a good barometer for where he currently stands.

MOST ANTICIPATED RETURN: JAMES CONNER, running back

While Conner’s battle with cancer has just begun, both he and his doctors have stated their intention for the star running back to be prepared for the 2016 season. The moment when Conner returns to Heinz Field with a helmet and pads on has the potential to be the most palpable, emotional and deafening moment in Pitt’s history at Heinz Field, as the Erie native’s road to recovery has already seen the support of all of western Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. His first carry, whether it be a 75-yard touchdown or a five-yard loss, will likely receive as much applause and hubbub as a game-winning Hail Mary.

TEAM MVP: TYLER BOYD, wide receiver

While one could argue for quarterback Nathan Peterman, Ollison or Whitehead, Boyd was clearly Pitt’s most important player, and the team will miss him greatly after he departs for the NFL. The junior wide receiver recorded 1,539 all-purpose yards on the season, while registering 42.9 percent of Pitt’s receptions and 37.4 percent of the team’s receiving yards on the season. Essentially, Boyd embodied the Panthers’ passing game, as Pitt tried to get the ball to the playmaker any way it could, often times reverting to screens and end-arounds just to get the star his touches. Pitt will struggle to replace the production of the program’s all-time leading receiver.

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Superlatives highlight highs and lows of 2015 Pitt football season