By WILL GRAVES
Pitt quarterback Tom Savage sat down with coach Paul Chryst this week and reviewed each sack Savage has taken during the first five games of the season.
The film session took awhile. There wasn’t a choice really, not with 21 sacks to dissect. What Savage saw wasn’t an offensive line in need of a reboot but a quarterback who needs to do a better job of helping out his teammates.
“I need to get the ball out of my hands and improve,” Savage said. “You just have to be prepared for the defense, know what they’re going to do and anticipate.”
That’s something the Panthers (3-2) haven’t done enough of in their last two games. Pitt survived seven sacks in a victory over Virginia on Sept. 28, even if Savage left in the fourth quarter with a concussion. He managed to stay on the field during a 19-9 loss to Virginia Tech last weekend. His reward? The job of enduring eight sacks by the Hokies.
Old Dominion (4-2) could give Pitt a chance to work on things, though the Monarchs aren’t just any ordinary FCS team. The program is in a transition year as it prepares to move to the FBS and a spot in Conference USA in 2014.
Not that the Panthers need to be reminded of the pitfalls of underestimating a lower-division school. Youngstown State spoiled Pitt coach Paul Chryst’s debut in 2012, controlling things all the way in a 31-17 victory.
The Panthers have quickly rebounded, though the sting of that embarrassing misstep remains. When pressed on if he thinks his team is mature enough to not play down – or up – to the competition Chryst just shrugged his shoulders.
“I hope we’re making progress,” Chryst said. “We’re going to find out.”
Five things Pitt needs to be wary of as Old Dominion looks to prove its plan of moving on up is well ahead of schedule.
Keeping Savage upright: When given time, Savage has proven to be a playmaker. He possesses one of the biggest arms in the ACC, perhaps one of the reasons why he’s taken so many hits. After lighting up Duke for 424 yards and six touchdowns in a 58-55 victory, he spent a large portion of the next two games trying to buy time in hopes of creating another big play. All it did was give a pair of talented defenses a chance to chase him down.
“There’s times when you can escape and make a play, and there’s times when you just have to stand in there and take it,” quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger said. “And I think Tom has continued to learn and develop.”
Hot Heinicke: Old Dominion QB Taylor Heinicke, who won the Walter Payton Award last season given annually to the best player in the FCS, remains one of the most dynamic performers in the country. Heinicke is averaging 348 yards passing per game and is also the Monarch’ second-leading rusher, though he also sustained a concussion in a 21-17 win over Liberty two weeks ago.
“They really spread the field, and he can get it to a lot of spots because he has a strong arm,” Chryst said. “He’s an accurate passer.”
Dominant Donald: Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald hardly seems phased by the double teams thrown his way this season. Donald has at least one sack in each of Pitt’s five games and his eight total sacks are more than 19 teams have so far this year.
Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder called Donald “one of the best defensive linemen in the country” and added neither Virginia or Virginia Tech “could handle him.”
On the run: Pittsburgh’s inability to generate a consistent rushing attack has heaped even more pressure on Savage. Freshman James Conner went down with a shoulder injury against Virginia Tech and replacements Isaac Bennett and Rachid Ibrahim managed just 48 yards on 12 carries.
Conner will likely sit out this week, leaving it up to Bennett to carry the load.
“I’m playing my role,” Bennett said. “When he was in there, I was more of a second-and-long or third-down back. But it’s all good, and I just have to do what I can to help the team like catching balls and protecting Tom.”
Taking a break: Old Dominion is the first in a stretch where the Panthers play three of four games against nonconference opponents.
“It’s nice to be in the rhythm of the season,” he said. “Each game is a unique opportunity, and I don’t think you feel more or less pressure.”