Football: Third-down conversion rate plays integral role in Panthers win


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

The Pitt football team led the Old Dominion Monarchs 28-24 at the beginning of the fourth quarter Saturday. The lead expanded to 35-24 after Tom Savage rushed for a touchdown with 13:19 left to play in the game. 

After Chris Blewitt’s kickoff, the Monarchs started driving. A pair of completions from Monarchs quarterback Taylor Heinicke moved his team into Pitt territory at the 39-yard line, and the Monarchs threatened to score again. 

On third-and-two, Heinicke completed a swing pass to Antonio Vaughan, who was stuffed in the flat, for a loss of six by linebacker Anthony Gonzalez. The next play saw safety Ray Vinopal break up a pass intended for Blair Roberts to force a turnover on downs. 

The defensive stop put the Panthers (4-2, 2-2 ACC) in control for the final 10-plus minutes of the game and embodied Pitt’s execution on third down, which keyed Saturday’s 35-24 win over Old Dominion (4-3) after the Monarchs led 10-0 heading into the second quarter. 

“Third down, we call it ‘money down,’” Vinopal said. “You’ve gotta get off the field on third down as far as momentum goes.”

And Pitt was money on third down Saturday, as the stop halted any momentum the Monarchs built en route to a possible comeback. Pitt limited Old Dominion to a 33-percent conversion rate, as the Monarchs finished 5-for-15 on the down. 

“We gave up a few that were kind of tragic on third-and-long,” Vinopal said. “Overall you’ve gotta win third-down battles. I think that was the key to our success today.”

Vinopal finished as the game’s leading tackler at seven stops next to his pass defense and interception later in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers improved as the game progressed after the Monarchs converted 3-of-5 third downs in the first quarter ,pulling out to a 10-0 lead. But Vinopal and the defense focused in to hold Old Dominion to 2-of-10 on third down over the rest of the game, including a 0-for-4 mark in the fourth quarter. 

“We just went back to the bench, and everyone was saying that we’ve gotta get it together,” Vinopal said. “We’re getting these guys first and second down, we’re playing great downs of defense, we can’t let it all go to waste on third.”

While the defense improved its play on third down, the offense scored three touchdowns in the second quarter to take a 21-10 lead into the locker room at halftime. Isaac Bennett scored all three and helped keep the Panthers’ offense moving all game despite a lackluster performance from the passing game. 

Offensively, Pitt finished 4-of-10 on third downs to out-perform the Monarchs this week. The victory over Old Dominion follows a week in which No. 24 Virginia Tech won the third-down battle and, in turn, beat Pitt 19-9. 

While Pitt executed well on third downs, the Panthers’ drives didn’t result in many crucial third-down situations as Bennett kept the ball moving. Bennett rushed 30 times for a career-high 243 yards and three touchdowns. 

“If the running game is good, it’s able to open up the passing game, and today the running game was real good, and Tom was able to make a play to Manasseh {Garner] one of the times,” Bennett said. “It just balanced out a lot. We were good today.”

Pitt’s 40-percent conversion rate is an improvement from its performance against Virginia Tech last week, when the Panthers converted only 4-of-14 third-down chances for a sub-par 28 percent mark. For safety Jason Hendricks, the improvement wasn’t necessarily one that came from increased strategizing or the like. 

“We’re playing with more confidence,” Hendricks said. “We’re just getting our feel for the offense. It took us a little while, but when we got on ‘em, we got on ‘em.”