The Panthers utilized a similar formula for success in a season opening victory 28-7 over Villanova Saturday afternoon. Pitt rode workhorse James Conner and a strong defensive effort to the win.
It was a lethargic start offensive start for the Panthers in the season opener against Villanova. The first quarter ended scoreless in Pittsburgh. Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt pushed a field goal attempt wide right to open the second period adding to the misery, after the Panthers first extended offensive drive of the game.
Safety Tarrish Webb out muscled a Villanova receiver intercepting Nova quarterback Zack Bednarczyk near midfield on the very next drive. It could’ve been a jump starter for the Panthers offense, but they failed to capitalize going three and out on the ensuing possession.
The Panthers played smothering defense throughout, holding Villanova’s offense scoreless and didn’t allow the Wildcats to convert on a third down try until the third quarter.
It took into the second quarter to do so, but the offense eventually got going as well, spurred on by a couple of timely returns from Qadree Henderson. Both first-half touchdown drives were set up by Henderson running back punts deep into Villanova territory.
Henderson was a force in the return game, returning a punt 31 yards to the Villanova 32, and another 14 yards setting up shop for the Panthers at the Nova 32 once more. Both drives ended in 7 for the Panthers. Henderson followed that by jetted the second half’s opening kickoff 96 yards to pay dirt, giving Pitt a rapid fire 21-0 advantage. He went untouched through the hole before dusting the kicker in a foot race to the far sideline, easily cruising to the house from there.
James Conner broke the ice, punching in a three-yard touchdown run to give Pitt a 7-0 lead. He finished emphatically with a “get off me” stiff arm, bowling a defender all the way into the end zone. Conner also impressed with his hands in the receiving game. Conner hauled in a touchdown grab right before half for the Panthers touchdown in some serious traffic. Conner held on while getting sandwiched between three defenders. It was a dart of a pass by Nate Peterman on the play, too. The Panthers took a 14-0 lead into halftime.
Hard to describe how great it is to see Conner back performing at peak level after the health battle he’s endured. This notion was not lost on the crowd either, who provided a roaring standing ovation after Conner’s first carry.
Scott Orndoff was a steady safety target for quarterback Peterman. Orndoff and his big body provided an able target working the seams down the middle much of the afternoon. He also displayed a nose for the first down marker, moving the sticks on a handful of grabs.
Linebacker Ejuan Price showed more of the same as a pass rushing force back from last season, chipping in two sacks on the day. Corner Avonte Maddox had two sacks, also.
Villanova’s only points of the game came on a strip sack of Peterman that was bobbled and booted until finally getting recovered near the Pitt end zone and taken in putting 7 on the board for the Wildcats.
Trouble in the kicking game: Blewitt missed his first attempt, a 39 yarder, then had another one blocked from 47 yards out. He was 0 for 2 on the game, though he did hit all four extra points.
A sack by safety Dennis Briggs stalled a would be Villanova scoring drive with a timely third-down sack, knocking the Wildcats out of field goal range following the blocked kick. That stop and a touchdown toss from Peterman to Jester Weah, his second TD pass of the day, put an end to the competitive portion of the contest with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Pitt never trailed en route to a 28-7 win, 1-0. Next up … Penn State.
Photo credit: Pitt football