IOWA CITY, Iowa – Tevaun Smith vividly remembers last year’s game at Pitt. And despite his Iowa team winning, those recollections aren’t of the positive variety.
"The running back (James Conner) and the receiver (Tyler Boyd), those are the two guys I remember from last year," Smith said.
The Panthers ran out to a 17-7 halftime lead a year ago behind the physical running of Conner and the athletic pass-catching ability of Boyd. Conner rushed for 100 yards in the first half. Iowa was able to "hold" him to 55 after the intermission in escaping the Steel City with a 24-20 victory.
Conner suffered a season-ending injury in this season’s opener against Youngstown State. Boyd, who caught 10 passes for 153 against the Hawkeyes in the last meeting, missed Week 1 because of disciplinary suspension but came back last week to catch 11 balls for 95 yards in a 24-7 win against Akron.
Pittsburgh comes to Iowa Saturday (7 p.m. CT, BTN) looking for revenge after winning the statistical matchup a year ago but falling on the scoreboard. Both teams are 2-0.
"It was a heck of a challenge last year. That was a really hard football game. Hotly contested, both sides, we had to come from behind. There’s nothing easy about that one and we knew that one going in and I anticipate the same thing here," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Pittsburgh rolled up 435 yards and 24 first downs against the Hawkeyes in ’14. The Panthers held a 72-53 advantage in plays run.
Iowa converted big plays when it counted, however. C.J. Beathard replaced an injured Jake Rudock at quarterback in the second half and engineered three scoring drives, two that ended in touchdowns. A 62-yard bomb to Damond Powell and a 10-yard completion to Ray Hamilton under extreme pressure stood out as key moments.
Now the uncontested starter, Beathard has enjoyed a strong beginning to ’15. He has posted a 161.19 quarterback rating, completing 30 of 49 passes for 426 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s added 103 yards rushing on 18 carries.
Beathard and the Hawkeye offense will be facing a different look than last year in Pittsburgh. Former Michigan State Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi is the Panthers new head coach, replacing Paul Chryst, who left for the same position at Wisconsin, his alma mater.
"You see an awful lot of the Michigan State influence," Ferentz said. "We looked at last year’s (Pitt) film just to get a feel for the players and how they matched up against our guys a little bit, and then we have gone back and looked at our games against Michigan State. In some ways, it’s like a first game almost."
The Spartans finished in the Top 25 nationally in five of the last seven seasons with a strong Narduzzi influence. His unit was the only one in the country to finish in the Top 10 in total defense and rushing defense every year from 2011-14.
The Hawkeyes posted a 4-3 record against MSU during Narduzzi’s time in East Lansing. The last meeting came in ’13 with the Spartans claiming a 26-14 decision.
“Kirk Ferentz is an offensive-minded coach. He’s an O-line guru and a tremendous football coach," Narduzzi said. "(The Hawkeyes) will be known for their toughness and like us, will be known as a blue-collared tough football team. It will be a tough football team up front.
"They have a lot of [alumni] playing in the NFL, seems like they have a first-rounder every year. They’re going to be a tough football team. We have to be ready.”
Narduzzi’s defenses at Michigan State prided themselves on physical play from all 11 players on the field. He called it "60 minutes of necessary roughness."
Ironically, Pitt comes to Kinnick Stadium in a similar position as the Hawkeyes faced a year ago with Beathard and Rudock. The Panthers have employed a two-quarterback system with Chad Voytik and Nate Peterman. Narduzzi said he would name his starter on Thursday.
Voytik lined up behind center against Iowa a year ago. He completed 19 of 29 passes for a career-best 250 yards.
"(Voytik) he can run and he gets out there in the open, boy, he covers ground fast. That really jumped out at us in our preparation and then we saw it firsthand, as well," Ferentz said. "The other guy (Peterman), maybe not as fast, but maybe a little bit older and a little bit more seasoned. So it’s not a dramatically different challenge but I think, you know, we have to be ready for both, clearly. They are going to play the guy they feel the best about at that point."
Time, TV, Announcers: 7 p.m. CT on BTN with Joe Beninati and Chuck Long.
The Series: It’s the 7th meeting between the teams and the series is tied 3-3. Iowa won, 24-20, last year in Pittsburgh.
Betting Line: Iowa opened as a 4-point favorite, a number that rose to 5.5 as of Wednesday.
-Pittsburgh is 6-2-1 Against The Spread in its last nine road games.
-Iowa is 4-1 ATS in its last 5 home games.
Match-up to Watch: Boyd against Iowa cornerbacks Desmond King and Greg Mabin is a tempting choice here. But the likely Top 10 NFL Draft Pick and his teammates are seeking revenge despite him lighting up the Black and Gold in ’14.
The key for me is to keep doing what Iowa has done well through two weeks – run the ball and stop the run. In this match-up, the Hawkeyes will face their toughest defense to date. And with potential injuries at running back, keeping the ground game going could be a challenge.
One of Pitt’s most experienced and talented position groups is the defensive line, specifically tackle, where four of the five players listed on the two-deep are upperclassmen, three of them seniors. Projected starters, Tyrique Jarrett and Darryl Render, check in at 335 and 300 pounds, respectively.
The Panthers are allowing just 88.0 yards a game on the ground and 3.26 per rush. Iowa is averaging 235.0 and 5.28.
Iowa could be without starter LeShun Daniels (ankle) and No. 3 Derrick Mitchell Jr. (undisclosed). The load would then fall to Jordan Canzeri (5-9, 192), Akrum Wadley (5-11, 185) and Marcel Joly (5-11, 185).
The interior of the Hawkeye offensive line is experienced. Jordan Walsh, Austin Blythe and Sean Welsh come into Saturday with a combined 72 starts. They’re undersized by most standards but play with good leverage and will need to again going up against the Panthers’ beef.
Take Note: Iowa is one of only five schools in the country yet to allow a rushing touchdown or 100
Take Note, Take Two: The Hawkeyes are trying to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2009. Iowa has advanced to a bowl game every season it has started 3-0 (2001, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009) under Ferentz. Iowa has opened the season with a 2-0 record in 11 of the past 15 seasons
Non-Sports Related: Bingo, The Big Mac and the Ferris Wheel were invented in Pittsburgh.
Did You Know?: Famous University of Pittsburgh Alumni include Gene Kelly, Fred Rogers and John Irving.
Did You Also Know?: Actress Sienna Miller outraged the fine residents when she called their city "Shitsburgh" after spending time filming 2008’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh there.
Pittsburgh Wins If… its defense forces two or more turnovers.
Iowa Wins If… it controls the clock with its running game (same as the last two weeks).
Overview: Football seasons are filled with cliches. You have trap games, letdown games and revenge games, to name a few.
Following those examples, Iowa must avoid a letdown after winning a rivalry game against a program seeking revenge. Good teams navigate these obstacles.
The Iowa State game, always emotional, was ratcheted up a few notches with the passing of former Hawkeye stars Tyler Sash and Roy Marble last week. Ferentz fought back tears as the contest concluded. The team swarmed to the Cy-Hawk Trophy.
It’s natural to come down from that kind of high. The Hawkeyes just need to stay up enough to avoid a Pitt squad searching for payback.
This Iowa group is showing the right mindset through two weeks, taking care of business against an inferior opponent in Week 1 before displaying resiliency against the Cyclones. If the camaraderie and chemistry it’s talking about are legit, the Hawkeyes should welcome the challenge of beating a respectable Power 5 Conference opponent at night in their home stadium no matter what happened last Saturday.
Iowa also should benefit from playing a team that mirrors it. There shouldn’t be too many surprises, just two teams banging heads in a physical football game.
I felt good about how the Hawkeyes matched up with Pitt before the season. The first two weeks have done nothing but make me feel better about it.
Prediction: IOWA 27, Pitt 17.