Panthers looking to regroup as Notre Dame looms


Pittsburgh Panthers tight end J.P. Holtz (86) makes the first down catch in front of Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets linebacker Quayshawn Nealy (54) in the second half of their NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 21-10. (AP Photo/David Tulis)


by Will Graves
AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh tight end J.P. Holtz doesn’t need to use last year’s three-overtime loss to Notre Dame as motivation to face the Fighting Irish again next Saturday.

“Personally, I don’t like Notre Dame at all,” Holtz said Monday. “It’s going to make me play harder.”

Pressed on where that animosity comes from considering Holtz was recruited by the Irish and claims he had an “awesome” visit to South Bend, the sophomore shrugged his shoulders.

“I just think they’re really cocky and their coaches are really cocky,” Holtz said. “So, I just don’t like that.”

There isn’t any cockiness to be found at Pitt (4-4) these days, not after the Panthers fell to Georgia Tech 21-10 on Saturday night, their third loss in four weeks. Pitt’s offense, thought to be the team’s strength after lighting up Duke for 58 points on Sept. 21, continues to falter.

The Panthers were held to minus-5 yards rushing by the Yellow Jackets, who sacked quarterback Tom Savage five times and shut down Pitt on three consecutive second-half possessions when the Panthers had a chance to take the lead.

It’s become a familiar pattern for Pitt. In their last four games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, the Panthers have scored just 54 points.

“Every position needs more consistency,” Holtz said. “We have to come together every play, not one out of every three plays. It has to be every play for the offense to be good.”

Something it hasn’t been since Savage withstood seven sacks and left early with a concussion in a 14-3 victory over Virginia on Sept. 28. The senior, who tied an Atlantic Coast Conference record with six touchdown passes against Duke, has thrown five touchdown passes in his last five games combined.

Injuries along the offensive line and at running back haven’t helped. Freshman James Conner hasn’t been the same since sustaining a shoulder injury early in a 19-9 loss to Virginia Tech and Isaac Bennett has been erratic. He ran for 240 yards and three scores to help Pitt survive a scare from Old Dominion on Oct.  19 but just 93 yards on 28 carries over the last two weeks.

Coach Paul Chryst pointed to a first quarter possession as part of the problem. The Yellow Jackets had just taken the lead when Savage hit Tyler Boyd set the Panthers up with a second-and-1 at the Pitt 34. Conner was stuffed for no gain on second down and lost three yards on third down. The Panthers punted.

“One thing in the run game, if you’re off a little bit bet it footwork or a landmark, a short space can affect it,” Chryst said. “We didn’t come off on a double team and got another run through on the backfield … you have to give (Georgia Tech) credit, they’re not stationary targets but (our problems) are correctable.”

They better be if Pitt wants to find its way to a bowl, a path that looks tricky with a schedule that still includes the 24th-ranked Irish (7-2) and No.  14 Miami (7-1).

The Panthers insist they have not lost faith. They came as close as anyone to beating the Irish in the regular season last fall. Pitt led by 14 points in the fourth quarter only to allow Notre Dame to escape with a victory that helped propel it to the national championship game.

The stakes aren’t quite as high this time around, though a win by the Panthers would provide a welcome boost for a program that has only operated in fits and starts of late.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for us to get this season back on track,” Holtz said. “We lost two close ones but everything set in front of us. We’re playing a really good team and we can get this thing going if we win this game.”

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