No Conner, no problem for Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers

Pittsburgh receiver Tyler Boyd posted eight catches, five carries and one completion in the Panthers' 31-28 win over Georgia Tech.

When All-American running back James Conner went down with an MCL tear in a season-opening win for the Pittsburgh Panthers, expectations diminished for first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi.

Five games later, Narduzzi’s Panthers are 5-1 overall and 3-0 in conference play, including road victories over Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

In Conner’s absence, Pitt has had to rely on freshman Quadree Ollison to carry the load in the backfield. He finished Saturday’s 31-28 win over the Yellow Jackets, the reigning Coastal champs, with 22 carries for 83 yards and one touchdown. It wasn’t an explosive performance from Ollison, but he consistently picked up positive yardage for a Pitt offense that ran the ball 43 times in the game.

"I mean, he’s a bull," Narduzzi said when asked about Ollison’s 22 carries. "He’s fought hard, and you’re obviously impressed with Darrin Hall and Chris James as well. All three of those guys played roles in the game, and it takes a team to win."

When Pitt needed a big play offensively, it once again relied on All-ACC receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd caught eight passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns. He also had five rushes for 26 yards and completed a pass for 29 yards. He was everywhere. Though Boyd matched his gaudy numbers from last season, he is once again proving he’s one of the most dangerous receivers in the nation — and possibly the ACC’s best.

With Nathan Peterman behind center, the Panthers were able to control the clock against a team that notoriously wins time of possession. Pitt’s first and final scoring drives took up more than seven minutes of clock. Peterman, who transferred from Tennessee and won the starter’s job after a victory against Akron, threw for three touchdowns and took care of the ball as Pittsburgh went without a turnover in the game.

"Week-to-week, I think he just becomes a better player," said Narduzzi. "Nathan has played outstanding here, and he’s a winner right now."

On the final possession for Pitt, the offense managed to take up over seven minutes of clock while gaining only 31 total yards on 14 plays. With just over five minutes remaining, Ollison converted a 4th-and-1 from midfield to keep the drive alive. Two minutes later, the Panthers faced another fourth down. This time Petermann found Boyd for five yards to get inside the Georgia Tech 35-yard line. Penalties knocked the Panthers back to the 38-yard line, which set up Pitt for a go-ahead field goal with just over a minute left.

Chris Blewitt struck it perfectly for a school-record 56-yard field goal and eventual game winner.

While the defense has been the point of strength for the Panthers so far, they were able to get it done differently on Saturday. A Georgia Tech offense that has struggled heavily this season found some rhythm and broke off a number of long plays against the Pitt defense. To neutralize that, the Pitt offense played an efficient and productive game to limit the amount of time the Yellow Jackets’ offense spent on the field.

"Offensively, we played outstanding," said Narduzzi. "That was a game we were waiting for, where you start off with a seven-minute, ten-second drive to open up the game. We won the toss, took the ball, and said we were going to take it to them, and we did."

In Narduzzi’s first season, the Pittsburgh Panthers have suddenly found themselves in the driver’s seat in the Coastal. Pitt’s only loss is to an undefeated Iowa team that made a 57-yard field goal as time expired to pull off the victory.

With key divisional matchups against North Carolina and Duke looming, the Pittsburgh Panthers have an opportunity to be a surprise conference contender a year removed from going 6-7.