Through two games, Pitt is -6 on turnover margin. Yet, it is fair to say that turnovers have been irrelevant to the 1-1 record. Oh, sure if Pitt hadn’t turned the ball over against FSU, it may not have been a blowout. But, no one can fairly (or without engaging in massive speculative fantasy) claim that Pitt might have won the game. With New Mexico, the only difference less turnovers would have meant would be a bigger blowout.
They do matter, though. This team is simply not good enough to consistently give away possessions (without getting nearly the same number of turnovers from the opponent) at the rate they have in the first two games. Except for Old Dominion, every game the rest of the way is a toss-up. Some may slightly favor Pitt. Some may slightly favor the opponent. That has to be cleaned up.
Onto the game.
This one was over by the end of the first quarter, but it remained entertaining.
The main attractions were the freshmen. Headlined by Tyler Boyd.
Pitt receivers coach Bobby Engram was trying to explain the phenomenon that is Tyler Alexander Boyd when his young son Trey bounded into the room.
Engram turned to his son and said, “Hey, who made the biggest play out there?”
“Tyler,” Trey said. “He made the best play.”
Engram responded with the question of the hour after Boyd’s coming-out party as Pitt’s latest offensive star: “Which one?”
Indeed, there were three superb choices on a day in which Boyd accounted for 195 all-purpose yards and two spectacular touchdowns in Pitt’s 49-27 romp over New Mexico.
The first occurred on Pitt’s fifth snap. New Mexico cornerback Cranston Jones practically had crawled inside the back of Boyd’s jersey, but that didn’t stop the man whose Twitter handle is “Alexander The Great” from hauling in a 51-yard bomb from quarterback Tom Savage.
The second happened quickly — real quickly — late in the first quarter when true freshman Boyd took a handoff on a jet sweep and took off like an F-15. He finished his 33-yard TD sprint with a Reggie Bush-style dive from the 5.
The third evoked the great Larry Fitzgerald. Pitt was down to its final play of the first half when Savage tossed a 34-yard jump ball to the back of the end zone. Boyd reached for the heavens and somehow came down with the ball and a foot in-bounds.
Everyone knew the raw talent and potential. I remain completely amazed at his pass-catching. He was much more of a running back in high school — simply to ensure that he had the ball as frequently as possible. I really thought that he would look rawer. Still learning the nuances of catching the ball. Instead, he looks as if he has been a WR his entire life.
Then there was James Conner, the freshman running back who is making me look silly for thinking the Pitt coaches were making a mistake in training camp by moving him from defensive end to running back. He was not quite a beast, but he was powerful. 119 yards, 2 TDs (and 1 fumble) on just 12 carries. And if that wasn’t enough, a backstory.
Conner led all rushers with 119 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries only nine days after Alyssa O’Neill, a close friend from Erie McDowell, died Sept. 4 of an epileptic seizure.
“I give it my all every game,” Conner said, “but getting in the end zone made it special, I’ll say that.”
Conner said he spoke to O’Neill the day of the Florida State game (Sept. 2), his first as a collegian.
“She told me, ‘Congratulations, good game, I want to come out and visit you.’ That was the last time (we spoke). Two days after that she died. She was almost like a sister to me.”
The really sucky aftermath of the fake girlfriend saga of Manti Te’o is that I had to pause at the story for a minute. But, yeah, it happened.
Then there were the rest of the freshmen.
Then, on the last play of the half, Boyd leaped for the ball, then kept his feet inside the back line of the end zone for 34-yard score and a 35-6 lead.
“I’ve learned to not be surprised by Tyler,” Chryst said. “The thing that is exciting is he can be better.”
The game belonged to the freshmen — five of them, actually — with Conner and Boyd joined by tight end Scott Orndoff (a 4-yard touchdown reception), kicker Chris Blewitt (seven extra points) and safety Terrish Webb (a fumble recovery that was New Mexico’s only turnover).
One of the more absurd tweets I saw after the FSU game, was one that said Pitt played all those freshman as Chryst’s plan to impress all the recruits at the game. Guess he’s still trying to impress recruits as Dorian Johnson saw action. Shakir Soto continues to do nicely when playing at DE for spells and Tyrique Jarrett gets time at DT.
The defense set the tone in the game. Especially in the first quarter when Pitt committed two turnovers. Aaron Donald took advantage of the poor kid who had to play center in place of the injured Dillon Farrell. Wreaking havoc in the New Mexico backfield. And the pressure stayed on the Lobos up front until midway into the 3d quarter when the starters got a group break to give the second team work.
The linebackers were better in this game. Aided in no small part by the return to starter status by Todd Thomas.
The senior played nearly every defensive down and tied for the team lead in tackles with 10, including two for loss.
“It felt real good,” Thomas said after the game. “I’m happy coach Chryst and the team gave me the opportunity to come back. I love this team with everything that I have and I really enjoy playing for this team.”
Beaver Falls’ Thomas also made a big play to thwart New Mexico’s momentum early in the fourth quarter. Pitt led 42-20 but the Lobos were threatening to pull within two scores and faked a punt from near midfield. Thomas broke through the line and sniffed out the fake, blowing up the play and essentially sealing the win for Pitt.
Minor correction. Thomas is a redshirt junior. He has one more season of eligibility.
Thomas, who abruptly left the team after the first practice of August training camp, returned a week later but lost his starting job and played sparingly in the Panthers’ opening game loss to Florida State. He had been splitting reps with redshirt freshman Bam Bradley at weakside linebacker during the week, and began running with the first unit on Thursday.
But Thomas’s return to the team wasn’t as smooth as his play against the Lobos. A day after leaving the team, Thomas asked Chryst if he could come back. Chryst told him it would be up to his teammates.
“I talked to the seniors and they said that they wanted me back, but I had to change a little bit,” Thomas said. “I had to change how I carried myself, I had to stay humble and change for the team. I’m happy about that.”
Now that he’s back in the line-up and contributing to the team, Thomas says he is more at ease.
“I’m calm. I’m relaxed,” he said with a smile. “I’m not hyper any more.”
New Mexico may not feel the same way.
“We really couldn’t stop them … could not stop them,” Davie said. “Just big backs, big wide receivers, big quarterback, big offensive line.”
The Lobos, meanwhile, hurt their own cause by failing to fully cash in on three first-half turnovers and a 74-yard Carlos Wiggins kickoff return.
“I think we came out a little timid, to be quite honest,” said senior safety Dante Caro, who intercepted a Tom Savage pass on the game’s first play from scrimmage and later recovered a muffed Pittsburgh punt. “They came out and made plays, and we really weren’t ready. They caught us off guard a little bit.”
So at this point we still don’t know about this team beyond the fact that Pitt isn’t a top-10 team or a bottom-10 team. Hard to believe that a trip to Durham, North Carolina to play Duke will actually start telling us something about this team. But that’s where things stand. “In a world where Duke is not barrel bottom scraper of ACC football…”