We're very fortunate to have an excellent network of team-specific blogs with which to talk during game weeks at SB Nation. The first edition of the 2013 Opponent Blogger Q&A series features Cardiac Hill, an excellent Pitt blog. We talk coaches, transfers, and a pile of unanswered questions for both the 'Noles and the Panthers.
TN: Pittsburgh finished 6-7 for the second consecutive year in 2012. Tell us a bit about the off-season developments at Pitt and the expectations for a 2013 season that marks the first year two of a head coach's tenure since like 2006.
CH: Things have been bad for Pitt in regards to head coaches but not quite that bad - Dave Wannstedt was the Panthers' coach from 2005 - 2010 before the latest coaching fiasco. Pitt's offseason this year has been a bit of a train wreck, though a few things did go right. The biggest plus was Pitt's ability to hang onto head coach Paul Chryst despite the Wisconsin job opening. There was a lot of uneasy feelings when that job came open, obviously, but Chryst stuck with Pitt. His lack of commenting on the situation makes me think that he wanted to at least explore the possibility but in the end, he and Barry Alvarez decided he shouldn't pursue the job. There's all kinds of speculation out there as to why he didn't leave, but the bottom line is that he's here and that's a good thing for the program. Another good thing was that Pitt was able to put together a decent recruiting class despite the lack of on-field success, landing two big local kids - five-star offensive tackle Dorian Johnson and four-star wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Both had a slew of big time offers but ended up with Pitt.
The bad was, of course, headlined by the departure of expected starting running back Rushel Shell. Shell's departure didn't only hurt from the standpoint of this season, either. He was expected to be the starter for the next few years and the thing that was deflating was that Pitt had invested so much to land him, pursuing him for years. He was a five-star back that had his pick of schools but after a lot of time spent recruiting him, wound up at Pitt. He decided to transfer to UCLA before he asked to come back to the program to be closer to home. After Chryst declined, he's now ended up at West Virginia. The true story isn't quite known regarding his departure, but rumors have swirled about his questionable work ethic and the staff simply being fed up with him. Either way, his departure hurt the team. Pitt also lost a prized quarterback, four-star recruit, Tra'Von Chapman. The incoming freshman was involved in an assault case and dismissed recently. As if that weren't enough, Pitt had three players at a house where a drug bust went down - two were dismissed and one is indefinitely suspended. In addition to a few more transfers, it's been fun, fun, fun here in Pittsburgh.
TN: How excited are Pitt fans to join the ACC (#goacc) this year? What do you expect in terms of atmosphere at Heinz Field on Monday night?
CH: Most are very excited and despite the increase in competition, the hope is that Pitt can again be competitive in football. The basketball program will have success - we all know that. However, there are real questions for a football program that's found it hard to compete in even the Big East the past couple of seasons. Pitt has the capabilities to compete for an ACC title, but it won't be this year or likely even next. As a whole, though, some new faces and renewing some old rivalries have brought a lot of excitement. The home football schedule is one of the best in the nation and Pitt has nearly sold out its season tickets this season for the first time in a while. The atmosphere on Monday will be insane. Season openers always bring a level of excitement but to play a top 15 team in the first ACC game is pretty special. Fans have literally been talking about this game for months and it will get pretty loud next week.
TN: Pitt's offense loses Ray Graham, Rushel Shell, and Tino Sunseri, among others, heading into 2013. What do you expect its offensive identity to be this season? Who are some key offensive players for ‘Noles fans to keep an eye on?
CH: That's really the million dollar question. Pitt surely will want to throw the ball with transfer Tom Savage, but how much he's able to do will depend what direction the offense takes. Pitt is by definition, generally a run-first offense but with some weapons at wide receiver in Devin Street and the aforementioned freshman Boyd, there are some playmakers there. The game on Monday won't shape the offensive identity for the season since I can envision Pitt trying to run more in that game. But after that one, I expect the coaches to see how far Savage's arm can take them in the game or two that follows to determine what kind of run/pass mix they'll go with the rest of the year.
Key offensive players include Savage, of course, since he remains such a question mark. He hasn't played a game in about three years after transferring from Rutgers to Arizona and then to Pitt and no one really knows what to expect. Street will have a chance at school records in receptions and yardage this season at wide receiver and is maybe the biggest threat on offense. With guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant, there have certainly been better receivers at Pitt. But Street has stuck around long enough to make a run at the record book and he'll have the chance to do that with an attainable 1,000-yard receiver. Boyd is an interesting kid - had a monster game in a high school football All-Star game this summer with like 300 yards and five touchdowns. As a true freshman we'll see how much he does, but he's expected to contribute and is starting opposite Street. The running back is junior Isaac Bennett, who's played sparingly in two seasons. But he had a big spring last year breaking off several 50-yard runs in practices in scrimmages and should be serviceable. A wild card will be the tight ends as Chryst's offense depends heavily on them. With Savage getting his feet wet, look for them to serve as a bit of a security blanket for him and snatch up some balls on Monday.
TN: How do you expect the Panthers to attack Florida State's defense, which is undergoing a stylistic change under Jeremy Pruitt? What are your thoughts on Pitt's offensive line, and will they hold up against the talented FSU front seven?
CH: I think Pitt will start out more with the run and see how that works. Chryst doesn't do a ton of gadget plays, but I could see a couple on Monday just to keep the Seminoles' defense on their toes and to create some running room. They're dangerous, but if Pitt's rushers can't get anything going, I'm hoping the coaches will try something like pitches or screen passes instead of straight handoffs. The big problem for Pitt is that their top two running backs, Bennett and freshman James Conner, are both dinged up. Their status isn't known, though I expect them to play. Malcolm Crockett is listed as the backup on the two deep, but Conner has outplayed him in training camp. Crockett would be next in line to get carries if one or, God forbid both, be unable to go.
The offensive line is a major work in progress and are a huge question. The starting tackles from last year have moved inside to guard and at tackle, Pitt has a few talented but questionable players. Redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty is at one end and a converted defensive lineman, T.J. Clemmings, is at the other. Clemmings did play some offensive line in high school, but remains an unknown on the offensive line. When it was announced at the end of last season that he was changing positions, I didn't think he'd start over Juantez Hollins, a projected starter last year before he was suspended for the season. But he's held him off and will get the start for at least this game. All eyes should be on the tackles on Monday and that will be a good indicator if Pitt can much of anything on offense.
TN: The Pitt defense looks to be the strength of the team in 2013 after closing out the 2012 campaign in strong fashion. What does Pitt like to do schematically on defense? Who are some key players on that side of the ball?
CH: Pitt's defense is often a 'bend but don't break' style. They'll give up pass plays over the middle but tighten up and are often able to keep teams from scoring points. The Panthers utilize a 4-3 defense and the front seven should be pretty good. Tackle Aaron Donald was snubbed from the All-ACC preseason team, as acknowledged by nearly everyone, and the linebacking corps is solid. The secondary is really the special unit on defense and I think three of the starters, corners K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts, and safety Jason Hendricks, will have a chance to play on Sundays.
TN: In preview articles, you've mentioned the Pitt secondary as a strength and the need to pressure Jameis Winston on Monday night. Which aspect of Florida State's offense frightens you most, and what will the Panthers need to do to contain it? Is it as simple as limiting the big play, something Pitt was quite good at last season?
CH: I think the big concerns are stopping the run and keeping an eye on Jameis Winston. Pitt's secondary is good, but they can't cover and also be forced to make plays on Winston if he runs and breaks free. The linebackers are really the biggest key for Pitt on defense in this game. At times, they struggled in the passing game and while most are very athletic, defending a very capable passer and runner is going to be a unique challenge. What I'm most worried about is the linebackers not doing enough and then having the secondary burned on big passing plays with the threat of Winston running all over the place a concern for the DBs.
TN: How are you feeling about Pittsburgh's special teams unit?
CH: Like the offense, this one is pretty shaky, too. Pitt lost one of their main returners last year in Cam Saddler and Williams, Pitts, and Hendricks are all listed on the depth chart to help man that position. I'm really not crazy about taking players from your best unit and risking injury to them as a return man, but Chryst said in his press conference that he's not concerned about it, so hey ... whatever. The other issue is that Pitt not only has a true freshman kicker in Chris Blewitt (Yep, I know ... the name. We've already been through it.) but that he was apparently wearing a boot at the last practice. I'm hearing he should be fine, but Pitt's backup options there weren't real encouraging in the team's spring game. Like the offense, the special teams is up in the air.
TN: Finally, give us a prediction, if you would. Spreads generally favor FSU by around 10 points at this time. Will Pitt be able to cover or pull an important upset to kick off their ACC membership?
CH: Can Pitt win the game? Sure. That's just what Pitt does. They generally compete well against good teams, nearly beating #1 Notre Dame last year and hanging with Louisville, who finished in the top ten, while losing to bad teams. I don't know. I can see Pitt keeping it close if they force a couple of mistakes on defense, but an absolute throttling wouldn't surprise me, either. A big concern for me is how Chryst manages the game. He had the team thoroughly unprepared for last year's opener against Youngstown State and we all know how that ended up. For the record, I'll say Florida State wins by the ten points by which they're favored.
Big thanks to Cardiac Hill for the primer! Our answers to their questions will be up later.