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Pitt

Panther Hollow: Return To Fundamental Football Objective Vs. Lobos Saturday

By Matt Popchock
Manasseh Garner

Tight end Manasseh Garner stretches for the Panthers’ lone touchdown vs. Florida State Sept. 2. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — The Panthers (0-1) got an extra weekend to cool their jets after being burned by No. 10 Florida State in their opener. Now they’re trying to accentuate positives and eliminate negatives when New Mexico (1-1) makes its first-ever visit to Heinz Field for a 12:30 game on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan Saturday.

“We don’t want to let Florida State beat us twice,” said offensive lineman Matt Rotheram before practice on the South Side. “I think we were definitely able to put a few good things on tape. It was a lot of guys’ first start. We’ve got to work through that, and I feel like we’ve made some good progress.”

“There’s a great chemistry. We know our personnel and assignments,” freshman tight end/fullback Jaymar Parrish said in the aftermath of his first game. “We just have to make sure we execute Saturday.”

Against FSU the Panthers were unable to defend the pass, and, as a result, couldn’t keep pace offensively. The Lobos, who have used two quarterbacks, are more likely to beat them on the ground if they aren’t careful.

Led by head coach and Sewickley native Bob Davie, New Mexico has run its “gun triple option” offense, as dubbed by Pitt backup quarterback Trey Anderson, to the tune of 588 yards rushing on 99 attempts (5.9 yards/carry) through two games. That yardage ranks among the top 15 in FBS, and better than the option-style offenses of Navy and Georgia Tech–both of whom Pitt will play later.

Anderson was a Pearland (Texas) High School teammate of redshirt senior Kasey Carrier, who leads both the Lobos and the nation with 345 rushing yards after following a loss to Texas-San Antonio a win over UTEP.

Although neither of Florida State’s featured backs did palpable damage, they didn’t have to. Pitt tackled poorly and it couldn’t get off the field on third down.

New Mexico second-stringer Clayton Mitchem will not be confused with FSU wunderkind Jameis Winston, but they do have one thing in common. They’re both just getting their first taste of major college football, so any confidence given to them only makes their teams more dangerous.

“Any time you face an option, you have to stay true to your responsibilities. And there are some things that carry over from the first game. We’ve got to tackle better,” head coach Paul Chryst said in his weekly press conference. “I think we’ve got to challenge their receivers. We’ve got to be able to finish with some of our pressures. We’ve got to make sure we’re assignment-sound.”

Mitchem has only completed half his passes, but he has picked up 78 yards and two scores on just 12 rushes in relief of Cole Gautsche, who left the UTSA game with a head injury.

“Players need to trust that the guy next to them is going to do his job so that they don’t have to overextend and can do their job. If everyone does their job, then we’ll be in good shape,” Chryst added.

“As a defense, you’ve just got to be where you’re supposed to be,” said weak side linebacker Anthony Gonzalez. “We started early on New Mexico, and we watched one of their games last week. There were a lot of good things coming from the bye week.”

They used that time to determine how to build on their limited offensive success against FSU. Pitt began its ACC lid-lifter by marching 80 yards down the field on its first nine plays against the second-most efficient defense in America from 2012.

By the end of the night, however, they had been out-gained 533-297, they had held the ball 11 minutes fewer than the ACC champs, and they had only a four-yard touchdown plunge by tight end Manasseh Garner at the end of that first drive to show for their futile efforts.

Still, Tom Savage, who found Garner, said after that 41-13 pasting on Labor Day he believes the offense will be, in his own words, “special.”

“There were definitely some flashes. We’ve got to build,” Garner said. “The way we look at it is going back to fundamentals–doing the things we’re supposed to as football players. Taking it step-by-step and playing between the chains. Building off the little stuff. It seeps over to different aspects of the game.”

“The first drive, everybody worked together. Things didn’t go as planned, but we came out and fixed it,” said tailback Isaac Bennett during a week that saw Pitt try a number of things to get an early jump on the Lobos. “I can’t really say they threw us off. We just didn’t take care of the things we needed to take care of.”

Despite entering that first game with a totally revamped line, including Rotheram and Cory King shifting to right and left guard, respectively, and redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty debuting at left tackle, Pitt was able to grind out some tough yards.

Bennett looked no worse for the wear of a nagging knee injury suffered in training camp, James Conner displayed some of the power and bravado Pitt saw when it recruited him, and, with 151 all-purpose yards in the books, our first glimpse of Tyler Boyd can not be described short of dazzling.

“We get good pass [protection] from our ends. If you just stop for a second and think, outside of the mental mistakes, there really wasn’t people coming free on the quarterbacks till late in the game,” offensive line coach Jim Hueber said Wednesday. “You can’t watch the first quarter through the second quarter and not think we weren’t being physical in the running game.”

Garner, a junior, though also new as a starter, expects the adage about big improvements happening from week one to week two to hold especially true for the other newcomers to Pitt’s offense.

“There was a lot of anticipation and excitement as well. They took it in. As the game went on, they got more comfortable,” he said.

“It’s [about] more than just guys doing their jobs,” Rotheram said. “It’s working together, and working as one functional unit throughout the whole game.”

(Contact me at mpopchock@kdka.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)