Bennett runs Pitt past Old Dominion
Through the highs and lows, missed assignments and injuries and questions about the wellness of the program, Pitt emerged Saturday night with three items that matter. Some good, some bad:
• A 35-24 victory over undermanned — but feisty — FBS newcomer Old Dominion (4-3) before a crowd of 38,462 at Heinz Field.
• Pitt's best record halfway through the season (4-2) since the Panthers were 5-1 in 2009.
• Lingering questions after the defense and passing game left much to be desired.
“It was good to win, and a lot of guys did a lot of things to make that happen,” coach Paul Chryst said. “There are still, obviously, some areas we can get better at.”
Funny how Pitt won without three key members of the offense — wide receiver Devin Street (shoulder), left guard Cory King (back) and running back James Conner (shoulder) — but Old Dominion helped, too, with an incredibly soft run defense.
The key was Pitt junior running back Isaac Bennett, who ran like the marquee runner everyone expected to see before Conner arrived for his freshman year. Bennett stepped into the void left by Conner's shoulder injury and set career highs in yards rushing (240) and touchdowns (three) on 30 carries. Bennett finished 11 yards short of cracking the top-10 list in single-game rushing performances in Pitt history.
“Isaac ran the ball hard. I thought he ran the ball well,” Chryst said. “A lot of guys worked their tails off to make that happen.”
Not as effective was quarterback Tom Savage, who completed only 11 of 18 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. After throwing for 424 yards and six touchdowns against Duke on Sept. 21, Savage has totaled 482 yards and two scores in the past three games.
“We had a couple (good pass) plays,” Chryst said, “but we didn't do anything to push it down the field. Tom certainly missed some throws, but I never thought (he was uncomfortable). I didn't feel like he was a different guy.”
Eventually, the Pitt defense made the game closer than it should have been, allowing Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke to complete 31 of 52 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns. Plus, former wide receiver Antonio Vaughan carried 15 times for 70 yards and a score in his first game this season as a running back.
Pitt's defense recovered late, holding Old Dominion scoreless in the fourth quarter. An interception by safety Ray Vinopal ended the Monarchs' next-to-last scoring threat.
Pitt played much of the game with five or six defensive backs, leaving linebacker Todd Thomas, who had 12 tackles last week against Virginia Tech, off the field for all scrimmage plays.
“Because of the type of offense we were facing,” Chryst said. “There is no other reason than who we were playing and what scheme we thought would be best.”
Vinopal led Pitt with seven tackles, while defensive tackle Aaron Donald, an All-American candidate, had only two and failed to record a sack for the first time this season. Pitt's two sacks came from defensive end Ejuan Price, who started in place of Dave Durham, and linebacker Bryan Murphy.
Bennett's three scores on runs of 25, 3 and 16 yards marked the third time this season Pitt has scored 20 or more points in one quarter. Bennett did it in second quarter to help Pitt wipe out a 10-0 Old Dominion lead. Pitt also scored 21 against New Mexico and 20 against Duke in the first quarter of those games.
The second of Bennett's touchdowns was set up by Kevin Weatherspoon's 56-yard punt return, the longest for the Panthers since Darrelle Revis' 73-yarder against West Virginia in 2006.
Pitt took a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Savage to Manasseh Garner, a tight end who started at wide receiver in place of Street.
But the Pitt defense was again suspect, allowing two touchdowns in a span of 95 seconds in the third quarter to cut the lead to 28-24.
First, Heinicke found wide receiver Blair Roberts running free in the Pitt secondary for a 47-yard touchdown. After kicker Jarod Brown recovered the ensuing onside kick, Old Dominion scored on a 17-yard run by Vaughan.
Brown had an interesting game, setting a Heinz Field record — college or NFL — with a 54-yard field goal in the first quarter and then missing twice from the same distance in the second quarter.
Pitt regained control of the game early in the fourth quarter, 35-24, when the Panthers moved to the Old Dominion 5-yard line. Savage avoided a sack — he suffered only two after getting dumped 15 times over the past two weeks — reversed his field, ran toward the end zone and fell backward over the goal line into the end zone for a touchdown. It was his second rushing touchdown in as many weeks.