Pittsburgh is now the Virginia state champion. The Panthers have beaten Virginia Tech and Virginia in back-to-back weekends.
That, of course, is not enough to make for a successful season. But slowly – it’s too soon to say surely – first-year Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has pushed his new team toward setting up some ACC Coastal showdown games.
The Panthers (4-1, 2-0 ACC) are 4-1 for the first time since 2009 and 2-0 in ACC play for the first time in their three seasons since joining the conference.
The past two years, Pittsburgh was encouraging with a 2-1 start to ACC play before fading with three straight conference losses. In 2013, the Panthers finished 7-6 overall with a bowl win but only 3-5 in the Coastal. In 2014, they were 6-7 with a bowl loss and 4-4 in conference.
Now the question is if Pitt has improved enough to build on a 2-0 start.
Junior quarterback Nate Peterman is settling into his role as a leader of the team. The graduate transfer from Tennessee – he started only two games in three seasons with the Volunteers — threw for a career-high 222 yards completing 17-of-24 attempts against Virginia. His two touchdown passes matched a career high from the Panthers’ only defeat, a 27-24 loss to Iowa after a 2-0 start.
Junior wide receiver Tyler Boyd caught a season-high seven passes that were good for 54 yards and one touchdown. Junior wide receiver Dontez Ford set career highs for catches (three) and yards (63).
Running backs Chris James and Qadree Ollison are doing their best to overcome the season-ending injury to James Conner, the 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year. James, a sophomore, and Ollison, a redshirt freshman, combined for 143 yards and a TD. James had a career-long 48-yard run that set up Ollison’s four-yard touchdown.
Conner’s loss could have derailed Pittsburgh’s season. He suffered his knee injury in the season opener against Youngstown State that the Panthers were fortunate to win 45-37. But for the year, Ollison (95.2) and James (33.0) have combined for 128.2 yards per game to nearly match Conner’s 2014 average of 135.8.
A difference, though, is Conner scored 26 touchdowns in 13 games. Ollison (four) and James (none) have combined for only four through five games.
Defensively, Pitt has adapted to Narduzzi’s attacking style that established his reputation as one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators at Michigan State. The Panthers recorded four sacks against Virginia and have 21 compared to 19 all last season.
Thirteen players have a sack compared to 10 for all of 2014. Junior linebacker Matt Galambos leads the team with four. Five sacks led the team for all of 2014.
Virginia (1-4, 0-2) isn’t an ACC power, but the Cavaliers did defeat Pitt last year, 24-19. The Panthers will try to convert their momentum as they hit the road for back-to-back weekends Oct. 17 at struggling Georgia Tech (2-4, 0-3) and Oct. 24 at Syracuse (3-2, 1-0).
If they can come through those games with a Coastal record of 4-0 or 3-1 – a one-loss champion is likely in such a balanced division — Pittsburgh than can look forward to an ESPN Thursday night national television date on Oct. 29 at North Carolina (4-1, 1-0).
A non-conference home game follows against Notre Dame on Nov. 7, but if Pitt is still contending in the Coastal by then, the Panthers travel to Duke (5-1, 2-0) on Nov. 14 to face the newly minted No. 25-ranked Blue Devils.
At this point, Duke and Pitt are the only 2-0 teams in Coastal play, although North Carolina (1-0) also has yet to lose a conference test.
This is the point in the season when Pitt faded the past two years. This is the Panthers’ chance to become an ACC contender for the first time.