September 1, 2013

Know Your Opponent: Pittsburgh

2012 Record: 6-7 (3-4 Big East)

Starters returning: 15 total (5 offensive, 9 defensive, 1 specialist)

Breaking it down:

Pittsburgh could be in for a rough welcome to the ACC. The Pirates had a losing record in the Big East last season - a league nobody was going to confuse for a football powerhouse even before Pitt and Louisville bolted for the ACC.

But there are encouraging signs in Paul Chryst's second year. The Panthers have nine starters back on defense and just enough playmakers and size on offense to make things interesting. They're big and physical up front - guard [db]Matt Rotheram[/db] tips the scales at 340 pounds and all of Pitt's offensive line tops 300 pounds. The Panthers have similarly impressive size on defense.

Plus, Pitt has developed a strong tendency to play well in big games. The Panthers took Notre Dame to triple overtime last season and played Louisville to a 10-point game. The problem came against lesser opponents. That won't be an issue with Florida State in town.

Through the air

Player to watch:

WR Devin Street

2012 receiving
: 73 catches, 975 yards, 5 touchdowns

Devin Street is a big, physical, fast wide receiver. He's got good hands. He's No. 10 on Pitt's all-time receiving list even before his senior season.

He's also going into the teeth of FSU's deepest unit, the secondary. Both of the Seminoles' starting cornerbacks are physical players: P.J. Williams and Lamarcus Joyner. Behind them, Jalen Ramsey is a five-star, 6-foot-1 freshman who may be the most physical of all right now.

But Street was Pitt's go-to-guy last year and still got plenty of catches. The Panthers like to establish the run and then go over the top (Pitt averaged 12.9 yards per reception last season) so as to create a few one-on-one opportunities for Street. He knows what to do with them.

Chucking him the ball will be Tom Savage, one of the more well-traveled quarterbacks in college football. Savage has transferred twice, from Rutgers to Arizona State to Pitt, and he won the starting job this offseason. Savage set a Big East freshman record for passing yards at Rutgers.

Street has also become embroiled in a bit of a back-and-forth with FSU defensive back Karlos Williams. Williams said Street "wasn't a great receiver" and Street came back by saying Williams and FSU's defensive backs "sometimes get lost in coverage." Suffice it to say that matchup will be a fun one to watch.

Pounding the ground

Player to watch:

RB Isaac Bennett (Jr.)

2012 Rushing
: 29 rushes, 141 yards, 3 touchdowns.

Pittsbugh's got a huge offensive line, but it's not clear who's going to run behind it. Bennett is all that's left for the Panthers after Rushel Shell's transfer in the offseason - and even Bennett has been limited in practice for the past few days with a knee injury.

Behind Bennett is redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett, who rushed for all of 50 yards last year. Both of the backs are solidly built in the 5-10, 200-lb range, but neither were huge contributors last season. Pittsburgh wants to establish a running game, and it'll fall to Bennett, healthy or no, to move the chains.

The good news is that Bennett does have a hulking offensive line to run behind. Pittsburgh's OL size across the board compares well to FSU, which is saying something. Especially on the interior, Pittsburgh's guards are massive.

Getting defensive

Player to watch:

DT Aaron Donald (Sr.)

2012 Stats:
64 tackles, 18.5 for loss and 5.5 sacks

FSU's offensive linemen have taken note of Donald, Pittsburgh's havoc-wreaker in the interior. He's especially good at shedding blockers, something center Bryan Stork has noticed.

"He does a great job just getting off blocks and really has a knack for splitting double teams," Stork said. "I'm sure every now and then he'll come through the A gap."

Donald practically lives in opposing teams' backfields - he had 18.5 tackles for loss last season - which shows he's excellent at getting penetration.

Donald's just one of many veterans on the Pittsburgh defense. Only one starter on the depth chart has been at the school for fewer than three years, and the defensive line is entirely redshirt juniors and seniors. The only question mark is size. Pittsburgh's defensive line doesn't have a whole lot of heft: Donald is 'only' 275 pounds and he's the second-heaviest player on the starting defensive line.

Jason Hendricks, a redshirt senior safety, was all-Big-East last season and he should be the stopper in the secondary. He's also Pitt's leading tackler from 2012 by a large margin, and this defense prides itself on not giving up big plays - especially on the ground. Hendricks does his job as a safety net, but FSU's superior size across the board should give Pitt trouble.

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