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Panther Hollow: Led By Boyd, The Kids Are Alright

By Matt Popchock
Tyler Boyd

Pitt freshman Tyler Boyd reacts after catching a touchdown pass as the first half clock expired in Saturday’s 49-27 win over New Mexico at Heinz Field. (Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic/AP)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Any moment of unsolicited levity is bound to be the highlight of Paul Chryst’s weekly press conference on the South Side. He had enough to smile about after Saturday that today was as good an opportunity for one as any.

When Pitt wideout Tyler Boyd was announced as both the 247Sports National True Freshman of the Week and the ACC Receiver of the Week, Chryst only had one thing to say as he left the podium.

“Bout Dat,” he uttered with an unbridled grin.

Maybe Chryst is just catching onto what everybody knew Boyd was capable of as the undisputed MVP of the WPIAL his senior year at Clairton. More likely, however, he was merely echoing the sentiments of the 40,249 who left Heinz Field asking the same rhetorical question.

How Bout Dat freshman class?

In a 49-27 beatdown of Los Lobos, true freshmen accounted for five Panther touchdowns, including an electrifying pair by Boyd, who finished with 205 all-purpose yards. That included 134 on six receptions, most notably an early catch-of-the-year candidate right before halftime.

“I didn’t know I was going to go through it this early,” Boyd said of the awards and his early-season success. “I’m real thankful for everyone that helped me get there.”

After a turnover on downs by New Mexico, and a personal foul on defensive end Brett Bowers that followed a Tom Savage scramble, Pitt had a handful of seconds in which to go 34 yards.

Under pressure, Savage rolled to his right and threw toward the back of the end zone at the last possible moment.

As Boyd fell backwards into single coverage provided by Cranston Jones, he secured the pass and put his right foot down in bounds simultaneously, defying both gravity and a hasty push by linebacker Rashad Rainey as the second quarter clock hit zero.

By the time the dizziness from shaking one’s head would have disappeared, Pitt, which owned a resulting 35-6 lead at the break, was well on its way to evening its record.

“I was on a dig route, but then Tommy got out of the pocket, so I tried to help him make a play,” Boyd explained. “I just rolled out and went back for it like a deep route, like he was throwing it over the defender’s head.”

The sage NFL scout seated next to me could only sit back, smile, and offer one thought:

“What did you expect?”

Not that. Not even from him.

Boyd, the top touchdown scorer in WPIAL history, ran for 5,763 yards with the Bears, so he entered Pitt known more for burning rubber than taking flight.

But that catch made his 33-yard touchdown on a reverse to the right side with five minutes left in the first quarter–a play with which he embarrassed countless opponents in high school–look perfunctory.

“He was good. He was fun to watch. I thought he did some really good things,” Chryst said. “I’ve learned not to be surprised by Tyler. I still think he can be better.”

Against a less accomplished opponent, it wasn’t hard to imagine Boyd topping his first effort. The day began ominously for he and the rest of Chryst’s 2013 recruiting class when he hauled in a 51-yard bomb through double coverage (to say nothing of pass interference) that set up the game’s first points, an easy four-yard dart from Savage to a wide-open Scott Orndoff.

With the Panthers up 14-3 after Boyd’s pylon plunge, fellow freshman James Conner scored for the first time ever from a yard out, capping a short drive made brief by his own power running. In the second quarter, he added a 38-yard Xbox spin-o-rama, with a stiff arm just for good measure, to give Pitt a 28-6 advantage.

Conner led the Panthers with 119 yards on 12 attempts. When Isaac Bennett topped the century mark with a 13-yard score in the fourth quarter, it marked the first time Pitt had produced two 100-yard rushers in the same game since “Shady” McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling led an upset of Cincinnati in 2007.

The only glaring gaffe by any of the newcomers was an obligatory freshman mistake by Conner, a fumble that set up the second of two touchdown runs by New Mexico quarterback Cole Gautsche.

“James stepped in and made some huge plays,” Boyd said. “I know everybody in this class is gonna ride, and do what it takes to win.”

“If we can sharpen both things us, that’ll get us some more victories,” Conner said. “Being a running back, I have to give all my credit to the line. The linemen got great push…and Tyler, he’s awesome.”

That line features another freshman, Adam Bisnowaty, at left tackle, who quietly made room for Conner and Bennett, and seems to be really reaping the benefits of redshirting.

The biggest negative from Saturday’s game was, with four turnovers, the Panthers made their first victory of 2013 more interesting than it had to be. The biggest positive is the future of the program is now as interesting as it has been since Chryst took it over.

Despite Saturday’s grain-of-salt matchup, it’s hard not to be thrilled by what its new starters displayed in just their second game in their respective roles.

That group is led by the erstwhile top prospect in the WPIAL. This isn’t the first time Chryst has felt comfortable enough putting his offense at the mercy of such a player, but this time, this one has proven he’s had his head in the right place all along, taking neither his obvious skill set nor any first-team reps for granted.

He was right. Boyd can be better. He will be better, because, scary as it sounds, he made the same admission two weeks in a row: the collegiate game, for whatever reason, comes more organically to him than your average 18-year-old. Film study in preparation for Duke will surely suggest a young man who, indeed, makes the game look easy.

The Blue Devils (0-1, 2-1) hemorrhaged 469 yards in their ACC opener, a 38-14 loss to visiting Georgia Tech.

So, Coach Cutcliffe, how Bout Dat gameplan for containing Pitt’s newest breakout star in your own backyard this Saturday?

(By the way, good luck with Dat.)

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