Football: Panthers look to sync offensive, defensive units


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

The last time Pitt football was tasked with defending a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback, Florida State’s Jameis Winston threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns. As the Panthers (3-2, 2-2 ACC) hit the midway point of their 2013 season Saturday against the Old Dominion Monarchs (4-2), the Monarchs are led by quarterback Taylor Heinicke who is dangerous with his arm and legs. 

This season, Heinicke has racked up 2,088 passing yards and and 235 on the ground. Heinicke enters Saturday’s game with 14 passing touchdowns, accompanied by another five scores on the ground. 

“He’s got a really great understanding of the game,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said. “He gets yards rushing, but he’s looking to extend plays and stay alive in the pocket.”

The previous three weeks have seen Heinicke compile over 1,000 yards of total offense, alongside nine touchdowns. 

“He can get the ball out of his hands fast,” Chryst said. “They really spread the field, and he can get it to a lot of spots because he has a strong arm.”

With Heinicke’s offensive capabilities, defensive ends coach John Palermo called preparation for this week a “nightmare.”

Palermo’s unit has played well recently, like the rest of Pitt’s defense since it allowed 58 points at Duke. 

“I think we were average at best against Florida State,” Palermo said. “Since then, we’ve played pretty damn good.”

Pitt’s defense faces another challenge in the Monarchs’ offense, led by Heinicke. Old Dominion’s last game, a 21-17 victory over Liberty, saw the Monarchs compile 550 yards of total offense. 

For Chryst, the key as always is to play assignment-sound football on the defensive side against Old Dominion’s spread offense scheme. 

“I think it’s a good scheme, but they have good players running it,” Chryst said. “They have some guys that when they get the ball in their hands, and get in space, they’re pretty good.”

Pitt’s own “pretty good” players, Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, look to rebound from their least productive week of the season. Chryst said Street is a gametime decision after he sustained a shoulder injury at Virginia Tech, as is running back James Conner. 

As a result, Isaac Bennett will likely receive a boost to his carry total this week. Pitt looks to establish the running game after the Panthers recorded just 23 yards on the ground in Blacksburg last week. 

“We’ve just got to go back to the basics, what we were doing in the summer,” Bennett said. 

If the Panthers can establish the run, Chryst said that would “absolutely” take pressure off an offensive line that has allowed quarterback Tom Savage to be sacked 15 times between the team’s last two games. 

“I just think we’ve got to get back to trusting some of the things individually with technique,” Chryst said. “We’ve got to do a better job of making plays, that changes the game. Maybe it’s running the football or making a catch to get a little bit of momentum.”