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Weekly Kickoff: Pitt opens ACC play vs. North Carolina

The Panthers travel on the road to face the Tar Heels

After in-state rival Penn State and a difficult road game against Oklahoma State, you’d like to think Pitt can have some time to catch its breath. No such luck this week as the Panthers have another challenging game next. This weekend’s contest against the Tar Heels is difficult for a few reasons.

First, it’s the third consecutive ‘tough’ game for the team. Teams/coaches won’t publicly downplay opponents very often and will tell you that every game is a big one. But to play three tough opponents all in a row just isn’t all that easy.

Then there’s the fact that it’s another road game. On paper, you might feel decent about this game but getting it at home would feel better.

Next, it’s the first ACC game of the year and while it would have been nice to defeat the Cowboys, the conference games are on a completely different level in terms of importance. Pitt’s ultimate goal is to win the ACC and they can’t reach the title game without winning the conference battles.

Finally, when you consider that this one is against North Carolina, a favorite for the Division no less, Pitt will need all kinds of help if they want to win the Division should they lose this one. You might be able to stay in the hunt for a Division title if you lose one of the lesser games. But, in general, you need to beat the better teams in the head-to-head matchups.

In other words, this is a very big game.

Like Pitt, the Tar Heels have been tested already. Their sole loss came to a Top 20 Georgia team, 33-24 and North Carolina also faced P5 team Illinois in a 48-23 blowout win on the road. This weekend was another easy win against James Madison, as the Tar Heels doubled them up, 56-28.

Playing North Carolina, Pitt will face another solid passing attack. Marquise Williams and his back-to-back 3,000-yard passing seasons is thankfully graduated, but the Tar Heels have still passed the ball capably with new quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky is not only a junior, but one with some experience, attempting about 150 passes over the past couple of years. On the season, he already has 853 yards including a huge day against James Madison this weekend with 432 yards. Trubisky also has avoided costly mistakes with eight total touchdowns and zero interceptions.

And by the way, Trubisky can run it a bit as well. He already has a 39-yard run on the season and two rushing touchdowns.

Of course, the Tar Heels are incredibly strong in the backfield, too. There, they’ll have to contend with Elijah Hood, who piled up nearly 1,500 yards on the ground last season, good for third in the ACC. He’s not had a huge start to the year, but still has 266 yards and four touchdowns. Even if Pitt’s secondary plays better this week, the defense can’t afford to relax in the running game and will need to shut down Hood.

In the ‘That guy’s still there?’ category is Pitt killer Ryan Switzer, who’s always managed big games against the Panthers. As a freshman, he returned two punts for touchdowns. Two years ago, he had a big catch and long touchdown. Last year, he piled up 126 passing yards and a touchdown. That dude loves playing Pitt and it would be surprising if he didn’t have at least one big time play.

So, how can Pitt win?

Defensively, North Carolina has been pretty tough on passing games but a little vulnerable against opposing running backs. They gave up 222 yards to Georgia star Nick Chubb. James Madison’s top two backs went for nearly 200 yards on the ground. And Illinois’ top back, Ke’Shawn Vaughn had 116 yards and a score against them. ESPN noted after their most recent game against James Madison that they’re a little banged up on the defensive line.

Seemingly, there’s an opening for Pitt’s stable of running backs so James Conner and company might be able to have a nice day.

Pitt’s defense also continues to force some turnovers and that’s encouraging. If they can win the takeaway battle, that would be a big help.

On the surface, this has the look of a difficult game to win. And Pitt’s secondary issues from this past weekend will make it even harder to feel optimistic here. But if the running game is strong and the Panthers can force a turnover or two, they can give themselves a chance to win it.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

NFL says 'no final decision' on Lady Gaga performing at 2017 Super Bowl halftime show

A new report by Us Weekly magazine said Lady Gaga is the confirmed headliner for Super Bowl LI's halftime show, but the NFL says that's not the case.

This comes after rumors that the pop artist would be performing at the football championship event.

>> Read more trending stories  

The 30-year-old singer will perform at NRG Stadium in Houston on Feb. 5.

Gaga appeared at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, where she opened the event by singing the national anthem.

"This is one of the highest honors of my career," she said of the performance. "I get a chance to sing for all the athletes  who have been working so hard their whole lives for this moment -- the coaches, as well as the fans in the stands who are waiting for this moment. I think it marks what being an American is all about."

Related:  Adele turns down offer to perform at Super Bowl 

Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson and Beyoncé performed during the Super Bowl halftime show this year.

NFL's senior vice president of communications Natalie Ravitz told The Washington Post there has not been a final decision made

"Us Weekly ignored my on the record response," Ravitz tweeted in response to the magazine's report. "We've had conversations (with)  several fantastic artists about SB Halftime Show but no final decision."

"We have had conversations with several fantastic artists about the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show," she said in an email to The Washington Post. "However, at this point we do not have a final decision. We’re happy there is so much excitement about the show."

Gaga's fifth studio album, "Joanne," is set to be released Oct. 21. It will be her first solo album since 2013's "Artpop." The first single from the album, "Perfect Illusion," was released Sept. 9. It was produced by Mark Ronson.

Pitt defense has near record day against Oklahoma State

The Panthers’ defense struggled against the Cowboys and almost found themselves in the record books

Pitt’s defense, particularly the secondary, didn’t have a good game yesterday against Oklahoma State. But how bad was it? In doing my routine post-game stuff today, there was this nugget from Chris Peak:

#Pitt's defense gave up 640 yards today. Single-game record is 675 (VT in 1993). Most recent 600-yard game was GT in 2014 (612)— Chris Peak (@PantherLair) September 18, 2016

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to just how bad the defense performed from a historical standpoint. But that they were only 35 yards from an all-time Pitt record is obviously a little more proof that those guys struggled almost beyond any reasonable comprehension.

Fortunately, they did tighten things up a little in the second half and at least keep the Cowboys out of the end zone less often. But 640 yards still shows they had a pretty rough day overall.

Ironically, while there were problems with the offense, too, that unit had their best day in terms of yardage in three years:

#Pitts's 527 yards of total offense tonight were the Panthers' most in a regulation game since they had 598 vs. Duke in 2013.— Chris Peak (@PantherLair) September 18, 2016

As I said before, I thought some of the playcalling was sort of bland and things could have been better to be sure. But they also had their moments and did a few things out there. Watching the postgame press conference this morning, even Pat Narduzzi basically said what a lot of us have been thinking - you score 38 points and it should be enough in most instances.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case yesterday. Pitt has plenty to clean up on both sides of the ball if they’re going to beat North Carolina next weekend.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Panther of the Game: James Conner

In what is becoming a theme, James Conner edged out Quadree Henderson for Panther of the game

This is starting to become a weekly theme with having to choose either Quadree Henderson or James Conner for Panther of the Week. This week we go with Conner in Pitt’s 45-38 shootout loss to Oklahoma State. It was not an easy call, but I’ll go with Conner due to a good chunk of Henderson’s yardage faking out the ESPN cameraman while Conner had to slug it out in between the tackles.

Henderson ended the game with two catches for 31 yards and 95 yards on the ground while hitting pay dirt twice. Conner hit the end zone once, but also chalked up 111 yards on the ground and hit for 60 extra in the air. The receiving yards included a 55-yard, over the shoulder catch early, with a Cowboy defender draped all over him that was seemingly on a play not even designed for him.

Conner continues to amaze all of us with his determination and getting back to where he was when he last hit the field. It is great to see he and Henderson contributing so much and winning this award. However, if Pitt wants to be successful this season, another player is going to have to step up and make it more than a two-person race every week.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

The Turning Point: Toss Sweep

Pitt had a chance for a big road win, but a conservative play call cost them

Pitt’s 45-38 loss to Oklahoma State had its fair share of twists and turns. Believe me, I was keeping track. I was all ready to hand it to Matt Galambos’ fumble recovery for a TD and then I thought long and hard about giving it to the weather delay. I never thought I would give “The Turning Point” to the weather, but I was set to do that, as it killed some nice momentum Pitt had, at the time. However, if I did that, I felt like it would let offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, off the hook. You could say the coaching staff, as I’m sure, at this stage, Pat Narduzzi has some say in the calls. I think this one is on him and the coaching staff.

The interesting thing is that Anson sort of wrote about this exact thing, earlier this week. At some point, Pitt has to trust Nate Peterman. He’s a fifth-year senior and he should be able to give the defense at least a little fear of a passing threat. I thought we had reached that point with about three-and-a-half minutes left in the game last night.

Pitt’s defense had turned it around in the second half. Oklahoma State went from trying to break all of their offensive records to just trying to eek out a win. After the weather delay, neither offense could get back on track, but finally, the Panthers got some momentum.

With about five minutes remaining, and the score tied, Pitt started to move the ball. They got close to midfield and were faced with a third-and-four. They need four yards here and they would be in prime position to continue a game winning drive. Oklahoma State was giving up some runs, but had stoned Conner as well, after the weather delay. It was time to put the ball in Peterman’s hands and let him find an open man for four yards. Instead, Pitt called for a toss sweep to Conner, which lost five yards. That led to a punt and then a slip by cornerback Avonte Maddox sealed the Panthers’ fate.

I’m all for the Pitt running game and manning up and letting your offensive line win the game, but this was not the time for it. They didn’t need a yard or two...they needed four. They were a road underdog, with a chance for a huge win in crunch time. It was time to trust Peterman and they didn’t.

It reminded me of last year’s fourth down decision against Iowa. It cost them then to be conservative and it cost them now. The good news is that Narduzzi learned from that last season. Let’s hope he does this year too. The wide receivers and Peterman need to make plays to give Pitt some hope of really competing, but they can’t do it if they are never given the opportunity.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Francis Scott Key descendant slams Colin Kaepernick for national anthem protest

A woman from Longview, Texas, who is a direct descendant of Francis Scott Key — yes, the man who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” — has slammed Colin Kaepernick for his protest of the national anthem.

Shirley Isham, a verified great-great-great-granddaughter of Key, said “Kaepernick does not do himself any honor” by kneeling through the national anthem and maintains that “it’s a disservice to him.”

“When I hear [the anthem], I’m completely overwhelmed with emotion, because that song, it represents this country and the men and women who died for this country,” she said, according to KLTV. “I watched the Olympics, watched them get up on the podium, put their hands over their heart and the anthem played for them. And I stood up with my hand over my heart and I applauded. That’s how proud I was of them.”

>> Kaepernick responds to slam from ESPN's Trent Dilfer, calls comments 'ridiculous'

She added that Kaepernick's protest "offends me. I know it doesn’t offend a lot of people, [but] it offends me because it’s a personal thing. Because of who wrote it."

Isham elaborated in another interview with USA Today Sports.

>> Read more trending stories

“It just broke my heart to think that someone that gets so much money for playing a ball game, who is half black, half white, would do this,” she said. “So many of his black race are oppressed, but it’s not by the whites, it’s by their own people. Look who their leaders are, and the president. Has [Barack Obama] done anything for these people?”

She continued, "It’s very painful for me. It just blows my mind that somebody like [Kaepernick] would do what he does to dishonor the flag of this country and the national anthem when we have young men and women overseas fighting for this county, people that have died for this country.”

Pitt falls to Oklahoma State after weather delay, 45-38

The Panthers dropped their first game of the year

Well, that was fun, right?

Pitt was competitive against Oklahoma State, but ultimately fell to the Cowboys on the road on Saturday in a 45-38 shootout.

The Panthers scored plenty of points. The problem? That whole defense thing. Most notably, it was the secondary, which was thrashed and the team’s glaring problem. More on that in a bit.

There was, of course, a massive weather delay. It was initially said to expect to last about 30 minutes but that stretched on to about two hours. I have to say that, as I followed along on WatchESPN, the game lost all kinds of importance for me and I had a difficult time paying attention. When play did resume, Oklahoma State ended up winning it on a long pass play (shocker!) near the end of the game and Pitt ran out of time on their final drive before a Nathan Peterman interception officially ended things.

So, this whole time of possession thing is sort of a misleading stat, right? Pitt strives to win that battle and many times, it’s indicative of the final score. That wasn’t the case today. Pitt dominated Oklahoma State in that area, holding the ball for nearly 38 minutes to the Cowboys’ 22. But part of the problem with that stat is that Oklahoma State often scored quickly.

Like, um, when they unleashed a 91-yard bomb on the very first play from scrimmage.

There were a few other storylines other than the Panthers’ imploding secondary. James Conner had a solid day, going for 111 yards on the ground and adding 60 yards on two catches. Quadree Henderson continued to prove he is a budding dual-threat star with 95 rushing yards, 31 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. Nathan Peterman had 237 passing yards, which is one of his bigger totals.

But all of that pales in comparison to the real issue, which is the Pitt secondary.

I said in the preview that the Pitt secondary would be tested and, well, they didn’t pass. We saw glimpses of issues last week against Penn State when, despite getting good pressure during the game, Pitt still gave up over 300 yards to an inexperienced quarterback. But today was a complete disaster. Mason Rudolph torched the Pitt defense to the tune of 540 yards and slung the ball all over the field. Now, keep this in mind - he was only 26-46 on the day and was actually fairly inaccurate much of the time. A more accurate guy perhaps ends up with 650 yards or so. Just a really ugly situation. Wide receiver James Washington was the biggest beneficiary with 296 receiving yards on only nine catches.

Pitt’s secondary really didn’t have any answers all day and the problem is, it might not get any better. Avonte Maddox was continuously picked on and Ryan Lewis had his problems as well. There also wasn’t a lot of great safety help, either, and you’d often see guys one on one down the field, which shouldn’t be happening with that sort of frequency. The defensive backs were routinely beaten and often, on deep throws.

The problem is for Pitt is that I don’t see where the improvement comes from. Damar Hamlin’s status is completely unknown at this point and even when Pitt brought in other guys like Dane Jackson and Phillipie Motley, the unit still struggled. The Panthers do have top recruit Paris Ford coming in next year but he and Hamlin will still need work. It might not be until 2018 when you see a significantly better secondary without a transfer or something.

Now, the good news is that Pitt won’t always be facing such a good passing attack. Still, that problem showed just why the Panthers aren’t going to be invincible. They just need more talent there. They’re a decent team right now, but games like this proved why they’re not yet great.

Another point of frustration for me was some of the offensive playcalling. When Quadree Henderson did get his hands on the ball, he was very good and made things happen. Sadly, that didn’t happen enough - especially in a game that was a complete shootout.

I was a little taken aback by some of the offensive playcalling. There was a 3rd and 3, for example, which screams for something like a sweep with Henderson or a quick slant inside. Instead, Pitt tried some variation of a rollout with Peterman before a failed 10-15 yard attempt downfield or something like that. Also a few too many straight runs up the middle and I was relieved to hear that it wasn’t only me when even the play-by-play guy mentioned something about the basic nature of the offense after a play.

But Pitt scored 38 points, so they obviously did plenty of good things on offense and that wasn’t the real/biggest problem today.

Overall, I just have a really hard time being too upset about this game. Would have been nice to win it, but is also wasn’t at all expected. Pitt also has a bigger game in the grand scheme of things next weekend against North Carolina since it’s a conference matchup. And the Panthers still went into a road game against what was a Top 25 team and took them to the final minutes of the game. I thought the team gave a solid effort today but the secondary was just exposed too much.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt-Oklahoma State in weather delay

The Panthers’ game is delayed in the fourth quarter

Pitt-Oklahoma State has already dragged on at over three hours and still plenty of time in the fourth quarter. But after nearby lightning strikes, the game is going to be even longer as it was delayed by 30 minutes.

Both teams have played to a 38-38 tie so far and while Pitt has had problems defensively in the passing game, the Panthers have hung in there and given them a shot to win a tough game on the road.

James Conner has 100 rushing yards on the day while Quadree Henderson has added 87 and a pair of touchdowns. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is 8/18 with 188 passing yards to go along with a touchdown. Oklahoma State’s passing game, though, has been the thorn in Pitt’s side. Their quarterback, Mason Rudolph, has 451 passing yards with plenty of game left.

We’ll see in about a half hour how both teams respond to the break.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Going Scouting: North Carolina

Pitt will tackle North Carolina next and while fans should be familiar with the Tar Heels, you can always learn something new.

Pitt starts a two game road trip today in Stillwater, OK. While that is happening, you can also get a look at their next opponent before the Panthers take the field for their conference opener on week from today.. You will have to get creative to watch both Pitt and next week’s foe, the North Carolina Tar Heels.

The Heels will play at the same time today and kickoff against FCS’ James Madison, at Kenan Memorial Stadium, in Chapel Hill. You are going to need two screens for this one and modern technology will come in handy. UNC and James Madison can only be seen on the ACC Network or by using WatchESPN.

While the Tar Heels have what should be an easy opponent in James Madison, as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” James Madison comes into the game 2-0 and has outscored their two opponents 136-28. That’s not a typo. James Madison has put up some serious points on the scoreboard, so the Heels may not want to avoid looking ahead to Pitt, like a certain other team possibly did last week against Central Michigan.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

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