Pitt Football: Can Young Panthers Finish Strong In Final Two Games?


Another must win. Another big disappointment. With their latest loss to UNC, the Pitt Panthers’ bowl chances are now on life support.

Prior to their game at North Carolina, the Panthers (4-6) needed to win two of their final three games to become bowl eligible.  The Panthers have not missed a bowl game since 2007. That 2007 season was highlighted by the Panthers spoiling West Virginia’s national championship dreams in the Backyard Brawl.

But unlike 2007, big wins have been hard to come by. After starting off 3-0, the Panthers have gone 1-6 since including 1-4 versus ACC opponents. Their only win versus a bowl eligible team came Sept. 5 at Boston College. That seems like a season ago at this point.

However, when you take a closer look at Pitt’s losses this season, you can’t help but feel a little sympathy for the Panther faithful. Excluding losses to Akron and Georgia Tech, four of the Panthers’ losses this season have been by five points or fewer. That is a tough pill to swallow for the youngest lineup in college football.

But with a bright future ahead for these young Panthers, finishing strong this year is on their minds. And with playmakers like James Conner and Tyler Boyd, this Pitt squad maybe not be down for the count yet.

Conner spearheads a Panthers’ rushing attack that ranks 16th in the nation. The man known by some as the McDowell Mauler is currently third in both rushing yards and touchdowns in the country, with 1,562 yards and 21 touchdowns.

As for Boyd, he has been the steady playmaker in the passing game that fans were hoping to see. After a slow start to 2014, the Clairton native leads the Panthers in receptions, yards and touchdowns by a wide margin. To put in perspective, senior Manasseh Garner is second in the team in receiving yards with 201.

The lack of a No. 2 receiver in the offense is one of the main reasons behind the struggles in the Panther passing attack.  The growing pains of Chad Voytik have also factored in the lack of a passing game. After finishing 55th in passing with Tom Savage last season, the Panthers have plummeted to 103rd in the country.

Even with the one of the worst passing attacks in the nation, one cannot fault the Panthers offense when the defense has allowed 40 points or more in the last three games.  This stretch began with a beatdown 56-28 loss at home to Georgia Tech and followed up by a 51-48 two overtime loss to Duke at Heinz. And with this week’s 40-35 loss, the Panther’s D now ranks 75th in points given up per game with 27.7.

Hopefully this tough stretch for the Panthers’ defense is over with Syracuse (3-7) coming to town. The Orangemen are near the bottom in the country in scoring offense with an average of 19.1 points per game. That is good news for the Panthers, who have won 11 of their last 13 meetings with the Orangemen dating back to 2002.

If Pitt does make it through Syracuse, their season comes down to the Miami game. Unlike the Panthers, the Hurricanes (6-4) have enjoyed their fair share of big wins in 2014. The Hurricanes have racked up wins against Duke and Cincinnati. They also went down to the wire with state rival and undefeated Florida St. Saturday night.

The Panthers will not only have to deal with all-ACC running back Duke Johnson, but with freshmen quarterback Brad Kaaya. The true freshmen from California has improved tremendously since debuting at Louisville, throwing for 22 touchdowns on the year. With this balanced attack, the Panthers will have their hands full in less than two weeks at Sun Life Stadium.

Though it looks bleak for the Panthers to reach a bowl game, this season is only a bump in the road for head coach Paul Chryst. The Panthers will return eight starters on both sides of the ball in 2015 including Conner and Boyd. With this amount of talent returning, look for the Panthers to be contenders for an ACC Coastal Division title next season.

In the mean time, give these Panthers a break. Blue skies and sunny days are on the horizon for Pitt, and yes I know you have heard that song and dance before. But next year should be different.

It has to be different or Chryst will be gone.