BY WILL GRAVES
Florida State provided Pittsburgh a glimpse of what it will take to rise to the top of the ACC.
The road – as evidenced by the way the 11th-ranked Seminoles dominated at times in a 41-13 victory on Monday night – will be a long one. Still, the Panthers believe they may already be on the path thanks to a couple of eye-opening performances by true freshmen Tyler Boyd and James Conner.
Boyd was arguably the best player in a blue jersey at Heinz Field in his college debut, making something happen each time he touched the ball. The speedy 6-foot wide receiver ran for 54 yards on three carries, caught two passes for 26 yards and came within one shoestring tackle of returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
Not bad for a kid who feared he would have trouble making an immediate impact against one of the nation’s top defenses.
“I thought it was going to be really tough,” Boyd said. “But I expected too much, I guess.”
The Panthers did what they could to get the ball in Boyd’s hands early. They ran him in motion and had him take a handoff from quarterback Tom Savage. All three times Boyd zipped around the end, he found room into Florida State’s secondary.
“I just think that every time we ran that play, it broke open every time,” Boyd said.
Of course, Boyd’s athleticism had something to do with it. On a night Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston exploded onto the national stage by shredding Pitt’s defense for 381 total yards and five touchdowns, Boyd provided hope the Panthers are making inroads on the playmaking ability required to be competitive in the deeper and more talented ACC.
Asked if he should get more touches going forward, Boyd didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely,” Boyd said. “I did everything I could do, but I could have made more plays. I guess I made enough plays to do all right, to do good.”
So did Conner, who may have provided some stability in a backfield that remains very much in flux. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Erie, Pa., churned his way for 34 yards on nine carries, impressing his teammates with his energy and determination.
“I was more nervous than anything,” Conner said. “But my teammates ... I have faith in all of them. I think we have a lot that we can still show our fans out there, but we just have to get back to practice and get better every day. The butterflies went away after a while, and everything was good in the second half.”
Even if the Seminoles had things well in hand. Though quarterback Tom Savage threw two game-turning interceptions – both of which the Seminoles turned into touchdowns – he also managed 201 yards and a touchdown while getting knocked around all night.
It wasn’t pretty at times, but Savage hung in there. At the moment, it’s a start. The 23-year-old hadn’t played in a game since Nov. 2010. He spent the last two seasons embarking on a cross-country journey from Rutgers to Arizona to Pittsburgh.
Savage completed his first pass in 1,024 days when he found Devin Street for a 32-yard gain in the first quarter. He later found Manasseh Garner for a 4-yard touchdown that gave Pitt an early lead. Things deteriorated from there, though Savage spent a large portion of the night under heavy duress.
“I think I had to shake some cobwebs off, but the one thing I’m happy about is that for the first time in a while I actually had fun out there and enjoyed myself,” Savage said. “Obviously, I would have liked to get the win, but I think we saw a lot of bright spots in this offense.
“So, we’ll just build off of that.”
Savage also developed a rapport with Street. Despite seeing double coverage at times from the Seminoles, Street finished with six receptions for a career-high 141 yards. The senior has endured more than his share of bumps during three seasons on the sideline. It wasn’t the start he envisioned, but last he checked there were still 11 more games to go.
“We have some new guys out there, and it was the first game,” Street said. “I definitely saw some effort out there. And now we have to come together and bounce back.”
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP