Pitt notebook: Thomas returns to starting lineup

Pitt's Aaron Donald pressures New Mexico quarterback Clayton Mitchem during the first quarter Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Pitt's Aaron Donald pressures New Mexico quarterback Clayton Mitchem during the first quarter Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 7:42 p.m.

Outside linebacker Todd Thomas returned to the Pitt starting lineup Saturday in a 49-27 victory over New Mexico at Heinz Field, five weeks after he said he wanted to leave the team.

He said he has changed for the better.

“Lesson learned,” the Beaver Falls grad said. “I'm just thankful coach (Paul Chryst) let me back.”

Thomas shared the Pitt lead in tackles (10) with Jason Hendricks, but that was the least of his accomplishments since leaving the team on the second day of camp after he had been dropped to the second unit.

The next day, Thomas said he wanted to return, but Chryst didn't make it easy for him.

“He said it's up to the team,” said Thomas, who was allowed back a week later. “I talked to the seniors, and they said, ‘Yeah, we want you back. You just have to change,' and I did.

“The way I carried myself wasn't really appropriate. I showed them I can change. I'm calm, just relaxed. I'm not hyper anymore. (Leaving) the team was a bad decision. It's over now.”

Thomas said he was told Thursday he was starting after redshirt freshman Bam Bradley injured his shoulder in practice.

Chryst said there were several reasons for promoting Thomas to the first team.

“The way we wanted to defend this team suited him,” Chryst said. “He had been doing some good things in practice. It was good to be able to get him a significant number of snaps.”

Thomas' best play occurred in the fourth quarter when he blew up a New Mexico pass for a loss of 7 yards on a fake punt. Chryst said the team had prepared for it.

“That was my key, my read,” Thomas said.

Learning from mistakes

Only two of senior quarterback Tom Savage's 17 passes hit the ground, but two others were intercepted, giving him four this season.

The first came on the game's initial play when Savage threw directly to New Mexico free safety Dante Caro.

“I saw the guy there,” Savage said. “I thought his shoulders were turned the other way, and he flipped on the last second.”

But Savage said his mistakes in the first two games won't stop him from taking chances with his strong arm.

“I need to understand the game, but I'm not going to be afraid to take shots downfield. I have the receivers to do it.”

Savage averaged 17.4 yards per completion while throwing for 236 yards. Redshirt freshman Chad Voytik played the final two Pitt offensive series, completing his only pass for 8 yards.

Double the fun

Running backs James Conner and Isaac Bennett ran for 119 and 101 yards, respectively, the first time in six years that two Pitt backs had 100 in the same game. LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling did it Oct. 20, 2007, in a 24-17 victory against Cincinnati.

Bennett's total was a career high.

Young group

Pitt has used 12 first-year freshmen in the first two games, including offensive lineman Dorian Johnson, who played in short-yardage situations Saturday.

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