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Pitt eyes offensive momentum for 2015

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik leaps over Duke's Bryon Fields in the second quarter Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, at Heinz Field. The Blue Devils won 51-48 in two overtimes.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd makes a catch over Duke's Evrett Edwards Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 at Heinz Field.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The perception encircling Pitt as it neared the end of the season was that poor defense had been the Panthers’ biggest curse.

That is only partially true.

There is no denying weak defensive efforts played a large part in Pitt’s 5-6 record entering the regular-season finale Saturday night against Miami at Sun Life Stadium.

Pitt recorded one sack in the four previous games — that’s among 109 dropbacks — and had no interceptions in 128 opponents’ passes in the four games before last week’s victory against Syracuse.

However, the offense isn’t guilt-free when evaluating what went wrong and why Pitt, which lost six of eight, needed to defeat Miami to become bowl eligible.

There was the Akron game Sept. 27, when Pitt lost, 21-10, at Heinz Field, suffering its second-largest margin of defeat and scoring its fewest points in the first 11 games. That might have been easier to accept if Akron (5-7) hadn’t finished tied for fourth in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference while losing five of its last six games.

Also, redshirt sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik struggled with the passing game in his first seven games as a starter, throwing one interception in six consecutive games.

The pick-six at Virginia cost Pitt a victory against a team that lost five of its next six games and never became bowl eligible. Voytik’s interception late in a loss to Iowa aborted a comeback after Pitt squandered a 17-7 third-quarter lead.

It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. Voytik was sacked a total of seven times in the losses to Akron and Virginia, robbing him of the opportunity to gain rhythm in the passing game.

The offensive line improved late in the season, allowing only four sacks and paving the way for 919 yards rushing in the three games prior to the Miami trip.

“It’s getting there,” coach Paul Chryst said of the progress made by his offensive line.

Voytik started improving in the 21-16 victory against Virginia Tech, using his legs more than his arm and outrushing running back and teammate James Conner, 118 yards to 85.

Finally, he became more efficient in the passing game, completing 68 percent (66 of 97) against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse. Meanwhile, Voytik’s only productive target, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, caught 34 passes for 649 yards and three touchdowns.

Pitt was 2-3 in those games, and this time most of the blame sat with the defense that gave up 147 points in a three-game stretch.

Chryst, never quick to praise, said Voytik’s diligence in the days preceding each game was the key, mentioning “the trust and value he is gaining from his preparation.”

Chryst hopes those lessons carry into next season when five offensive linemen with considerable experience return. That assumes center Artie Rowell recovers as expected from a season-ending knee injury suffered in the second game of the season.

Rowell was recruited before Chryst arrived, but the other four — Adam Bisnowaty, Jaryd Jones-Smith, Alex Officer and Dorian Johnson — are products of the current staff’s mandate to build depth on the offensive line.

Nothing can be assumed, especially if the defense gets no better, but Voytik, Conner, Boyd and the offensive line at least give Pitt a chance to compete for an ACC championship.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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