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September 23, 201348 hours after taking part in the second-highest scoring game in ACC history, Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said there was one key way to sum up an exhilarating and exhausting afternoon in Durham.
"It was a game of big plays," Chryst said during his weekly press conference Monday. "We've got to do a better job of special teams and defensively not giving up those big plays. And when you have a chance to get them on offense, you've got to be able to capitalize. There are things that all three phases need to clean up.
"Everyone realizes where we've got to get better and some of the things that we've got to keep doing that we're doing well but we can improve on."
Big plays were certainly a part of Pitt's 58-55 win over Duke. If "big play" is loosely defined as a run of at least 10 yards or a pass of at least 20, the Panthers and Blue Devils combined for 23 such plays on offense at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday afternoon.
And that's not counting the 82-yard punt return for a touchdown by Duke's Jamison Crowder. Or Anthony Gonzalez's 37-yard interception return for a score. Or the three other interceptions recorded by Pitt that afternoon. Or Duke's blocked field goal. Or a pair of onside kick recoveries by Pitt late in the fourth quarter.
There were big plays all over the place, and none bigger than the 15-yard pass from Tom Savage to Kevin Weatherspoon on third-and-7 with two minutes left in the game, a play that sealed the narrow victory for Pitt.
"We talked about going down and playing 60 minutes, and we used all 60 but we were able to come away with a win. I think that it truly, when you look at the film, every group contributed to that win."
55 and 532
Duke was on the losing end of the game Saturday, but Pitt's defense felt like it wasn't far above that level after giving up 55 points and 532 yards to the Blue Devils. The performance left the players feeling mixed emotions - excited for getting a win but dejected for the porous defense - and Chryst acknowledged some of the issues.
"We've got to get better defensively," he said. "There were a couple (big plays) where a guy sees a void in the defense and he tries to overcome that, and in return he gets beat, so he's not doing his job."
Duke had six runs of at least 10 yards and four passing plays of at least 20 yards in the game, including touchdown passes of 75 and 62 yards.
"Clearly we didn't tackle very well on some of those as well. There are things we have to clean up, and it starts with me and starts with the coaching and then the players have to go do it.
"Obviously you don't feel good giving up that many points."
Recognition for Savage
When a quarterback throws for 424 yards and six touchdowns, weekly honors and awards are likely to follow. Such is the case for Savage, whose performance was the best by a Pitt quarterback since 1997 for the touchdowns and 1994 for the yardage. On Monday, the ACC named him Offensive Back of the Week, the Walter Camp Foundation said he was the National Offensive Player of the Week and he was named the Davey O'Brien Quarterback of the Week.
"I thought he played well," Chryst said. "I thought he made good decisions and I thought he had some poise. I liked the way he played."
For the third game this season, Savage's arm strength was on display against Duke. He connected on a 50-yard pass in each of the first two games, and on Saturday he used that skill to hit Devin Street and Tyler Boyd in stride for touchdowns of 67 and 69 yards, respectively.
Chryst said Savage's big arm is an important weapon, but the whole package of the offense is what makes it all work.
"If you've got guys on the other end of it, it does," he said when asked if Savage's arm strength is impacting the offense. "Devin and Tyler have been playing well, 'Spoon made some plays for us, the tight ends are starting to contribute for us; one without the other doesn't do you any good. I thought our protection was pretty good. You've got to have everyone to be good."
So far, everyone has been good, and Savage ranks No. 6 nationally in yards per completion, No. 9 in pass efficiency, No. 11 in passing touchdowns and No. 19 in passing yards per game.
Savage wasn't the only player to take home honors and awards for the Duke game. Street was named ACC Receiver of the Week and Boyd was ACC Rookie of the Week. And Athlon's named Boyd Co-Freshman of the Week along with running back James Conner.
Conner rushed 26 times for 173 yards and a touchdown in the win, marking the first time this season he has taken more carries than junior Isaac Bennett, who rushed 12 times for 39 yards.
"I thought he ran pretty well and earned the right for more carries," Chryst said. "I didn't think Isaac was bad. I thought both of them had some good runs and both of them missed some runs.
"That's going to be the way the season goes."
On the season, Conner has gained 326 yards and three touchdowns on 47 carries (6.9 yards per carry, 108.7 yards per game), while Bennett has gained 174 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries (5.0 yards per carry, 58 yards per game). Conner is fourth in the ACC in total rushing yards and second in rushing yards per game.
Not bad for a player who was recruited to be a defensive end.
"He's not a stiff," Chryst said. "He's big, but I think he's an athletic player. I'm glad he's able to make some guys miss. He's done some pretty athletic things."
While Conner and Boyd have been the toast of the town for their performances as first-year players, they're not the only freshmen who have made an impact on the team so far. 12 freshmen have seen the field, and that number includes kicker Chris Blewitt, who is second on the team in points scored with 24.
Blewitt had a rough day Saturday, missing an extra point after Pitt's first touchdown and then having a field goal attempt blocked from 24 yards in the first quarter.
"I think he just missed the extra point," Chryst said. "And the block, he just didn't get it out. You look, and the point of contact wasn't different. We've got to just help him through that. He hadn't done that much; that was one of the things we thought he did a pretty good job of. He just mis-hit it."
So far, Blewitt is 3-of-4 on field goals and 15-of-16 on PAT's this season. While his kickoffs have varied in effectiveness, Chryst said he likes where the freshman kicker is after three games.
"At his position, when he misses an extra point, everyone knows. If Tyler misses a block or James misses a cut, not many people (say), 'Geez, I can't believe he didn't take that run back. I can't believe Tyler didn't get to the safety on that.' But everyone knows when you miss an extra point.
"That's his world. He's got to deal with that."
An untapped resource
Pitt's tight ends are as strong top-to-bottom as any position on the team, but despite all of the offensive fireworks, that group has seemed to be underutilized.
Through three games, the tight ends - including fullback Jaymar Parrish - have combined for 96 yards and three touchdowns on 10 receptions. Two of those touchdown passes have gone to freshman Scott Orndoff and the other went to transfer Manasseh Garner. Meanwhile, J.P. Holtz, who had the second-most career receptions of any returning player, has caught just two passes so far.
"I like the group," Chryst said. "J.P's not playing as many snaps as he did last year, but I think, in many ways, J.P.'s better.
"I think there is going to be some strength in numbers. They're all a little bit different, and I think if you throw that position group, if you put J.P. and Scott and Manasseh and Jaymar in it, I think they can give us a lot of things. And I think, for us to be as good as we're going to be this year, all four of those guys will be big."