Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: The Austin Peay win, recruiting, betting lines and more
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The 3-2-1 Column: The Austin Peay win, recruiting, betting lines and more

MORE HEADLINES - Pitt lands Baldwin DT Ford | Is Dayon Hayes in line for an elevated role? | Harley on the linebackers, recruiting in 2020 and more | PODCAST: What to make of a blowout win | Film review: What stood out in Pitt's 55-0 win over Austin Peay | 10 takeaways from Narduzzi's press conference

In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re talking about the takeaways from the Austin Peay game, a big recruiting win, betting lines and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Take the good…
Because, with all due respect to Mrs. Garrett, there wasn’t a lot of bad to take.

I really kept coming back to this point in the aftermath of Pitt’s season-opening win over Austin Peay. No, there wasn’t any great accomplishment in blowing out an FCS opponent, regardless of the Governors’ 11-win season a year ago.

Nobody is crowning Pitt for that achievement.

But it sure as heck beats the alternative, and given that we’ve seen the Panthers struggle on more than one occasion against inferior opponents - more than one occasion against FCS opponents, in particular - I think it is notable that they came out and beat the living hell out of Austin Peay.

It was a dominating performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen all that often from this program. It wasn’t too long ago that Pitt needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Delaware. It wasn’t too long ago that Pitt needed overtime to beat Youngstown State.

It wasn’t too long ago that Pitt lost to Youngstown State.

And that’s to say nothing of the Akron’s and Bowling Green’s and Ohio’s and Navy’s and Toledo’s, nor the almost-misses against the likes of Eastern Michigan.

If Pitt fans, who habitually predict those types of close games against lower-level opponents, should be able to appreciate anything, I would think it’d be a good, old-fashioned beat-down of an FCS team.

And there was a lot of good to like in that game. You wanted to see the offense score at will? You got it. The first-team offense was never stopped. You wanted to see the defense stifle an inferior opponent? You got it. Austin Peay had one rushing yard.

What’s more, you got something else, something that may or may not be relevant over the next three months. You got a different Pat Narduzzi.

Pitt’s head coach admitted it himself after the game on Saturday that the mindset was different this time around. After five years of playing it close against FCS teams and not showing too much and doing just enough to win, Narduzzi reversed course. He went into Saturday’s game looking to put on a show, or, in his words, “make a statement,” and his team did just that. They made a statement.

Now, the statement wasn’t that Pitt is a national championship contender. The statement wasn’t that the Panthers will give Clemson a battle for the ACC crown. We all know that we need to see more from this team to buy into that line of thinking.

But make no mistake about it: there was a statement. Never mind a statement to the nation or anything like that; rankings and national respect will take care of themselves if Pitt takes care of business. But Narduzzi sent a statement to his team that they weren’t going to be content with doing just enough to win.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Probably am. We’ll know in a couple months.

It’s okay to still question the offense
No, there weren’t many issues to take with the performance of Pitt’s offense, at least on the first team, but I think it’s okay to reserve judgment on that unit until it faces a Power Five opponent.

There’s no question that the Panthers were really good on offense on Saturday. Independent of the opponent, the first-team unit was close to perfect with six touchdowns on six possessions. They had a few issues, of course. There were two procedure penalties and two dropped passes that would have been touchdowns; those issues plagued the team last year and it wasn’t good to see them pop up in the first game.

But despite those issues, the offense was virtually unstoppable. Kenny Pickett completed 14-of-20 passes for 277 yards, all in the first half, and the first-team offense didn’t lose a single yard with Pickett on the field; not one of that unit’s 40 snaps ended up with a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

You also got what you wanted from the young players. Freshmen like Jordan Addison, Jaylon Barden and Israel Abanikanda showed that they deserve the hype, and second-year players Vincent Davis and Daniel Carter looked the part as well.

Overall, the offensive performance was exactly what anyone would have wanted to see. And when the second and third-team offenses stumbled, you got the added bonus of some mighty fine punting from Kirk Christodoulou.

A good show all around.

Now we need to see it against Power Five competition. Say what you will about Syracuse, but the Orange are a Power Five team. They gave up 31 to North Carolina last Saturday, but 21 of those points came in the fourth quarter; for 45 minutes of the game, Syracuse kept Sam Howell in check. That’s not easy to do, and the Orange’s 3-3-5 defense with a stout line and an athletic secondary can be tough to beat.

Syracuse will give Pitt its first test of the 2020 season. It won’t be the last test, but it will be a good first one. Last year, the Panthers were pretty good on offense against the Orange - for a half. They scored 24 points in the first two quarters and then, as was the case all too often in 2019, they went into a hole in the second half. So this game will be Pitt’s first chance to do that thing we’ve talked about a lot recently:

Play full games of consistently good football.

I’ve said a few times that I am bullish on this offense, but I also wrote in this column last week that to believe the Panthers will take a step forward on that side of the ball is rather absent of evidence. It is a leap of faith based on improvements we think these players can make.

Starting on Saturday, we get to see if they can actually make those improvements. If they do, if they go out and put up some points against Syracuse, then we can really start raising the expectations for the offense and for the team.

A clean sweep
After a month-long lull, Pitt got another commitment for the 2021 class on Thursday, and while the last commitment - IMG Academy tight end Jake Renda - came from a New Jersey kid with family in western Pa., the newest commit was a straight-up local.

Of course, I’m talking about Dorien Ford, the Baldwin lineman who picked the Panthers on Thursday over a host of offers that covered every Power Five conference, from Arizona to Penn State and from Texas A&M to Arkansas, with plenty of notable Big Ten schools in between.

But Ford opted to stay home, and while there’s plenty to say about him as a player, that phrase - “stay home” - is a key one, because Ford isn’t the first WPIAL lineman in the class to choose Pitt.

In fact, he’s the third of what already looks like the WPIAL’s best class of defensive linemen since at least 2006 and probably longer. In 2006, the WPIAL produced Jason Pinkston and Justin Hargrove - both out of Baldwin, incidentally - and John Malecki from Franklin Regional. Obviously, Pinkston and Malecki ended up playing on the offensive line, but they were both highly-rated defensive linemen as recruits, so we’ll use them as the comparison point.

And at least as far as high school careers go, the 2021 crop of defensive linemen locally looks even stronger than that crew from 2006. Central Catholic tackle Elliot Donald and West Mifflin end Nahki Johnson are both four-star prospects and Ford is a 5.7 on the Rivals rating scale, putting him at the top end of the three-star ranking.

Malecki was a four-star in 2006, but Pinkston (as I’m sure some of you remember) and Hargrove were both three-stars.

This current class of defensive linemen is impressive, and now the whole group is going to Pitt. That might even be more impressive, because we have all spent plenty of oxygen on Pitt’s struggles in getting the bulk of the top prospects in the WPIAL and western Pennsylvania.

For every Paris Ford, there’s a Lamont Wade and Kurt Hinish. For every Damar Hamlin, there’s a Miles Sanders and Khaleke Hudson. You know this story, and you probably have an opinion on how important it is for Pitt to get the best local prospects. Some say it’s crucial, others say it’s overrated, but I think everyone probably should be able to agree on this:

If there are good prospects in your backyard, it would be better to get them than to miss on them.

In the class of 2021, Pitt has done a pretty good job. The Panthers have Johnson, Donald, Ford and Central Valley safety Stephon Hall; Donald is the No. 2 prospect in the WPIAL, Johnson is No. 3 and Ford is No. 5. Gateway’s Derrick Davis is No. 1 and he remains a top target for Pitt, but even if they miss on him, landing three out of the WPIAL’s top five is pretty strong work.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

What did we learn?
Going back to Saturday’s game for a little bit more…

Beyond the intentional action of blowing out an opponent, what else can we say we learned about Pitt football 2020 from the 55-0 win over Austin Peay? I already said we’re going to reserve judgment on the Panthers’ offense. The defense was pretty much what you would expect it to be against an inferior opponent: stifling.

So we’ll continue to wait and see on those units. I’m sure you’re like me and anxious to get a look at Pitt’s offense and defense taking on Power Five competition.

But what did we learn on Saturday? What did stand out against the Governors?

There were certainly some personnel matters that were interesting. Like the running backs. I think we all probably agreed that the backfield was among the most intriguing positions on the team entering the season, simply because there was no clear No. 1 back.

A.J. Davis got the start on Saturday but came out after appearing to fumble (he was ruled down) on the first drive and never reentered the game. In his place, Daniel Carter, Vincent Davis and Israel Abanikanda all looked pretty good, and Pat Narduzzi said on Thursday that Vincent Davis will get the start against Syracuse.

The younger Davis may get the start, but I’m sure the rotation in the backfield is going to continue, as well it should. Carter showed a lot of promise, Abanikanda looked like he could live up to the hype he has received since getting to Pitt in January and Vincent Davis isn’t any taller than he was a year ago, but he looked stronger and a little bit more like an every-down back against Austin Peay.

So that’s going to be really interesting to watch going forward.

The wide receivers will be interesting, too. That’s partially about the rotation, since the coaches obviously won’t use as many receivers going forward as they did against Austin Peay. But it’s also about the individual players. Jordan Addison, Jaylon Barden and DJ Turner were all able to get downfield to make plays in their Pitt debuts; can they keep that up? If they can, that could really open things up in the passing game and the offense overall.

On defense, I think Rashad Weaver will be back after missing last week’s game and I think Habakkuk Baldonado will be out after getting hurt against Austin Peay, so that’s a wash, but I’m still curious to see how deep the coaches go in the rotation at defensive end.

I’m more intrigued with the linebackers. The three starters - Cam Bright, Phil Campbell and Wendell Davis - all look really solid. But the backups will have to rotate in; that’s how the coaches like to do it. So are SirVocea Dennis, Chase Pine and John Petrishen up to the task? We saw something from guys on Saturday, but they’re going to find themselves on the field a lot this season.

And, of course, the cornerbacks will get tested by Syracuse’s offense this week, so we’ll get a better idea of how ready-for-primetime A.J. Woods and Marquis Williams are.

So there is plenty to keep an eye on heading into this week’s game.

Will the rookie influx continue?
Pitt used 70 players on Saturday, and your hunch is right: that’s a lot.

It’s not a complete surprise. When you’re beating an FCS opponent 55-0, you’re probably going to empty the bench, which Pitt did.

What was really interesting and definitely made for some fun viewing in a second half that might have otherwise been lacking intrigue was the freshmen. The Panthers used 11 freshmen in Saturday’s game - 10 scholarship players and a walk-on long-snapper - and that gave a glimpse of the team’s newest players.

It also left us with a question: How involved will those guys be in the games going forward?

I guess the first thing to note is that not all of the freshmen waited until the benches really emptied in the fourth quarter before they got on the field. Jordan Addison and Jaylon Barden both started the game, and Israel Abanikanda got in on Pitt’s fifth drive of the first half.

Other freshmen, like safety Buddy Mack and linebackers Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields, saw playing time on special teams in the first half. So all of those guys were involved early, and if they executed their assignments, they can probably expect to see more playing time, at least on special teams, going forward.

But what about snaps with the offense or the defense? Addison, Barden and Abanikanda are in it already; those guys will be involved and probably play significant roles this season. On defense, it’s a little more up in the air.

Kamara and cornerback Rashad Battle eventually moved from special teams into the defense in the second half against Austin Peay, as did linebacker AJ Roberts; there’s probably enough depth at linebacker that Kamara and Roberts shouldn’t be needed to play too often, but the situation is up in the air at corner, so Battle could get some more opportunities.

Defensive end Dayon Hayes is really interesting. The Westinghouse star showed up right away, logging a sack on his first career snap and then adding a second sack - with a forced fumble for good measure - to finish his college debut as the nation’s leader in sacks.

Not a bad debut.

But will Hayes see more playing time going forward? We’ve all talked a lot about the depth at defensive end, and as long as there aren’t too many more injuries, Pitt shouldn’t need him on the field. But the coaches might want him on the field if he keeps performing like he did in the opener.

More depth is never a bad thing, and whether or not Hayes works his way into the rotation this week is something I’ll be very interested to see.

The good thing is, the coaches don’t have to worry about how many games each freshmen has played. The NCAA made this a free year; it won’t count against anyone’s eligibility. So whether a freshmen plays one game, four games, eight games or more, he’ll still have all of his eligibility remaining in 2021.

ONE PREDICTION

Pitt won’t cover
I’m guessing you had the same reaction that I did when you saw Pitt open as a three-touchdown favorite in this week’s game against Syracuse.

Yes, the Panthers looked very good in their 55-0 win over Austin Peay and the Orange looked very bad in their 31-6 loss at North Carolina. But three touchdowns is a lot in a conference game. That’s the kind of spread that Clemson usually gets.

Fun fact: The last time the Tigers weren’t favored by at least three touchdowns against an ACC opponent was a game at Boston College in November, 2018; that’s a run of 12 consecutive games. The last time Clemson wasn’t a two-touchdown favorite was the 2017 ACC Championship Game against Miami.

Clemson has earned that level of betting respect by appearing in three out of the last four College Football Playoff championship games and winning titles in two of them. Pitt, on the other hand, doesn’t find itself in this position very often. The Panthers have been a double-digit favorite against an ACC opponent just twice since joining the league in 2013.

And neither one of those two games was a cover for Pitt.

In 2017, Pitt was a 10-point favorite against North Carolina. That game was at Heinz Field and you probably remember that the Tar Heels won it 34-31. The other double-digit spread favoring Pitt was the 2016 Syracuse game; that was the biggest point spread ever favoring the Panthers in an ACC game at 24.5, and while there were 137 points scored that day, Pitt only beat the Orange by 15.

In each of the two ACC games where Pitt was favored by double digits, the Panthers failed to cover. In one of those games, Pitt lost outright. So that’s part of the reason I don’t think the Panthers cover this one.

The other part is Pitt’s history against Syracuse. The Orange are actually the Panthers’ longest-running rivalry, having played every year since 1955. And since both teams joined the ACC, the contests have been more or less close.

2013 - Pitt 17, Syracuse 16
2014 - Pitt 30, Syracuse 7
2015 - Pitt 23, Syracuse 20
2016 - Pitt 76, Syracuse 61
2017 - Syracuse 27, Pitt 24
2018 - Pitt 44, Syracuse 37 (OT)
2019 - Pitt 27, Syracuse 20

So other than the games in 2014 and 2016 - maybe there’s something about home finales - five out of the last seven games between Pitt and Syracuse have been one-score games. Three of those five were three points or less and the other two were each settled by a touchdown, including the overtime game in 2018.

Point being, the Panthers and the Orange have been in some close games over the last seven years. Which makes a three-touchdown blowout seem a little more improbable, regardless of where the two teams are this year.

Some other things I noticed about Pitt’s history with betting lines:

Pat Narduzzi has coached Pitt in 41 games against ACC opponents (five eight-game regular seasons and one conference title game). The Panthers were favorites in 16 of those, underdogs in 24 and a pick’em in one (that was the game against Virginia in 2017, which Pitt won).

When Pitt has been favored, Narduzzi has 11-5 outright but 8-8 against the spread. Those five losses as favorites stand out, of course. In case you were wondering:

2017 North Carolina (Pitt was -10)
2019 Boston College (-8)
2015 Miami (-7)
2019 Miami (-4.5)
2018 North Carolina (-3)

On the flip side, when Pitt is an underdog, Narduzzi’s teams have gone 12-12 outright and 15-8-1 against the spread. I thought that was interesting: Narduzzi’s Pitt teams have a .500 record when they are underdogs. They also cover about 63% of the time when they are dogs.

Something to keep in mind…

For this weekend, though, I think the Panthers will win comfortably - just maybe not by more than 22 points.