PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — If Pitt (1-1, 2-1) senior quarterback Tom Savage can even remotely emulate his performance at Wallace-Wade Stadium last weekend, the only award he won’t win when Virginia (2-1) visits Heinz Field Saturday at 12:30 on The Fan is homecoming king.
The 6’5″, 230-pound journeyman enjoyed a coronation of his own when he was named the Walter Camp Offensive Player of the Week, the Davey O’Brien Quarterback of the Week, and the ACC Offensive Back of the Week for his historic effort in a 58-55 decision over Duke.
In the highest-scoring game in Pitt history, Savage destroyed the Blue Devils with 424 yards on 23-of-33 passing. That single-game yardage now sits fourth in team history, just ahead of predecessor Tino Sunseri’s 419 yards in a 2011 weeknight win over Connecticut.
His six touchdown passes tied a 26-year-old ACC single-game record that hadn’t been matched since 1999. One of the last players to do it grew up 21 miles away from Springfield native Savage in Exton, Pa.: former UVA signal-caller Dan Ellis.
Other than the fact these teams played a bowl game in 2003 and a home-and-home 2006-07, with each host holding serve, those might be about the only things they have in common as they prepare to meet as Coastal Division rivals for the first time.
What appeared to be the Panthers’ biggest uncertainty entering the 2013 season has been their biggest strength the past couple games. Savage has shaken off three years worth of rust to lead the conference with an average of 287 passing yards per game, and he’s gotten tremendous help from a retooled receiving corps.
Meanwhile, Virginia has looked much more vanilla offensively, averaging just 4.4 yards per play. While Savage already had experience as a starter from his days at Rutgers, UVA sophomore David Watford is in his first year as a regular. He’s thrown six interceptions against just three touchdowns.
“Our first impressions are that they look to be very athletic,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “They’ve got some size offensively, defensively and on special teams.”
But can they keep pace with Pitt’s athletes? Fellow senior Devin Street is still as dangerous a deep threat as ever, leading the ACC and ranking in the top five nationally with 129 receiving yards per game after a career day against Duke that included touchdown catches of 67 and 21 yards.
Plus, pure freshman Tyler Boyd, who has carried with him one iota of hope for each man, woman and child in the town of Clairton, has exceed even their expectations by racking up 104.7 receiving yards per game, which ranks third in the conference.
Why? Because Savage, by and large, is being kept upright. Another newcomer, tight end Scott Orndoff, has also made a seamless-looking transition to the college game, making progress with pass protection and making plays offensively when called upon.
“You’ve got to value the reps. Getting settled in with the older guys just comes over time,” Orndoff said. “I think Tom maybe has a little more confidence in the guys he’s around. I think the entire offense has helped him play to his highest ability.”
“Devin and Tyler have been playing well. [Kevin] Weatherspoon made some plays for us. The tight ends are starting to contribute. I thought our protection was pretty good. On our one touchdown to Scott, they brought pressure and I thought we handled it pretty well,” Chryst said. “But Tom absolutely does have an arm that can get the ball to guys on all spots of the field, and that does help.”
He’ll have to continue spreading the wealth on Saturday in order for the Panthers to win three consecutive games for the first time since 2010. The Cavaliers had an extra week to reflect upon getting humbled at home by No. 2 Oregon, and they responded with a 49-0 shellacking of VMI.
Damning with faint praise? Possibly. But consider this:
Virginia ranks seventh in the country against the pass, allowing just 140 yards per game, and despite fielding one of the youngest teams in the FBS, it still has great veteran leadership. Senior tackle Brent Urban (6’7″, 295 lbs.) is tied for the national lead in pass breakups by a defensive lineman.
Savage can negate that advantage by stacking wins on first down. Pitt was a decent 41 percent (7-for-17) on third downs against the Blue Devils, including the one that finally secured the victory, but Virginia’s defense ranks fourth nationally in third down efficiency.
As long as he can play keep-away with junior strong safety Anthony Harris, the Cavaliers’ leading tackler and the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week for the opening weekend of the season, Savage, who is averaging almost 17 yards per completion, should have another big afternoon.
As long as he gets a little more help from his own defense, too.
Fifty-eight points should have been plenty, regardless of the opponent or its style of play. For the Panthers last Saturday, it almost wasn’t.
Fortunately, keeping the opener against current No. 8 Florida State in context, Pitt is showing, with its new gunslinger, it can win the sort of shootouts that are becoming more prevalent in major college football. If Watford gets on a roll, Savage will have an answer ready.
The young men who see him get better every day have no doubt.
“Coach Chryst and [offensive line] Coach [Jim] Hueber say every day it’s our job to score,” senior guard Cory King put it bluntly. “Every time we went out there Saturday, we just had the mindset to score. That’s what we’re supposed to do, and the coaches kept us in the game.”
Before Savage took command of this offense, that was hard to imagine. Now it’s hard to imagine anything less.
(Contact me at email@example.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)