The Pat Narduzzi era of Pitt football got off to a good start on Saturday.
Behind a solid rushing attack, the Panthers got Narduzzi his first career victory as a head coach with a 45-37 victory over Youngstown State at Heinz Field.
It certainly wasn’t the way the way he would have drawn it up, but Narduzzi was certainly happy with the final result.
“A win is a win is a win,” said Narduzzi. “There’s pretty wins and there’s ugly wins and this one was probably somewhere in between. Some things that happen as a head coach makes you want to pull your hair out, but we did a lot of good things and the bottom line is we still pulled off a win.”
The Panthers rushed for 325 yards on the afternoon and they needed every single one of them as the Penguins just wouldn’t go away.
Despite scoring 45 points and making plenty of big plays as an offense, it took a late stand by the defense to secure the win.
Freshman Jordan Whitehead made a diving play to bat down a third down pass and Youngstown State quarterback Hunter Wells threw an incompletion on fourth down to help secure the victory.
“It was exciting,” said Whitehead. “I had a lot of family and friends here for my first game. After the first play things settled down for me. I was a little nervous but I was able to just settle in and play football.”
A lot of the early damage was provided by All-American James Conner, but Conner left the game in the second quarter with an apparent knee injury.
“We were just being cautious with him,” said Narduzzi. “James is fine. I felt like we had a good stable of backs coming in. We got a lot of guys reps today at every position which is big.”
With Conner out of action that left an unlikely source to pick up the slack.
Redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison, making his collegiate debut, carried the ball 16 times for 212 yards (12.9 avg.) to help lead the Panthers to victory.
On his first college carry, Ollison broke loose for a 40-yard gain. He outdid himself on his third carry when he took a pitch and went 71 yards untouched for a touchdown.
“It was a great first game,” said Ollison. “The most important thing is we got the win. Coach Narduzzi always says next man up. We always preach that. We really expect that whoever is in there can get the job done.”
After a three-and-out by Pitt on their first drive, YSU shredded the Panthers defense on their first opportunity with the ball. But Pitt got tough around the goal line and held the Penguins to a 22-yard Zak Kennedy field goal.
On the Panthers second chance with the ball it was the Conner show.
Pitt made it a 7-3 game with a six-play, 72-yard drive. Capped off by a 13-yard touchdown run from Conner. He was at it again on the next drive, making it a 14-3 game with a four-yard touchdown run.
That would be it for Conner, who finished the afternoon with 77 yards rushing on just eight carries.
The two touchdowns from Conner gives him 36 in his career, which ties LeSean McCoy and Ray Graham for the second most in school history. Tony Dorsett holds the all-time mark with 63.
The two teams traded field goals before YSU’s LeRoy Alexander intercepted Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown to make it a game at 17-13.
YSU’s momentum didn’t last long though as Pitt’s Avonte Maddox returned the ensuing kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to send the Panthers into the locker room with a 24-13 lead. It was the first Pitt kickoff return for a touchdown since Buddy Jackson returned one against Utah in October of 2011.
“They just scored and we needed one so I had to make a play,” said Maddox.
Voytik struggled for most of the day, but ended up making a big play when the Panthers needed him, even if it was by accident. Voytik badly underthrew a wide open Elijah Zeise, but the ball somehow landed in the hands of tight end Scott Orndoff for a 55-yard touchdown to make it a 38-23 game.
“It was kind of an ugly one,” said Voytik. “It was probably the luckiest touchdown I have ever thrown. They were both wide open and I was just saying to myself to not overthrow it. Scott made a play and I owe him everything on that one.”
Overall it wasn’t a great day for Voytik, who completed 9-of-14 passes for just 72 yards with an interception and a fumble lost.
“It wasn’t great,” said Voytik. “There’s huge room for improvement. It felt good to be back out there, but I have to shake the cobwebs off and more importantly take better care of the football.”
The Penguins wouldn’t go away as Jody Webb again made it a one-possession game, cutting the Pitt lead to 31-23 at the end of the third quarter when he broke loose with a 27-yard touchdown run. Webb would score on a 75-yard touchdown run in the fourth to make it 45-37, but that is as close as YSU would get.
Webb finished the afternoon with 127 yards rushing on 17 carries.
A win is a win, but Narduzzi knows the Panthers have a lot of work to do before they travel to Akron next week.
As for this week he got the first one out of the way.
“It was probably what I expected. It’s definitely a lot hotter down on the field than it is upstairs in the press box with a soda,” he joked.
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports