All of sudden, Pitt looks like a team in need of a Band-Aid, perhaps a few of them.
The Panthers will be without five players who would have played important roles in the team’s crucial ACC game Saturday against North Carolina.
The most troubling news — for a couple of reasons — are the back ailments plaguing starting offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King.
King will miss his fifth consecutive game — that’s more than half the season for a guy in his final season at Pitt — and Bisnowaty sits out his second in three weeks. Coaches seem OK with senior Ryan Schlieper moving in for King at left guard. But it’s as much of a shame for King, whose opportunities are dwindling, as it is for the team.
Coaches will look a little closer at Bisnowaty’s replacement at left tackle, freshman Dorian Johnson.
Johnson, a Belle Vernon graduate, was widely proclaimed as one of Pitt’s most prized recruits in the Class of 2013. He did struggle two weeks ago in Atlanta, but that was in a noisy stadium against Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu, one of the ACC’s premier pass rushers.
The same result against North Carolina — a weaker opponent in a friendlier venue — would hurt Pitt’s chances of keeping its offense on track and raise questions about Johnson’s progress in his freshman season.
The other three injured Panthers are backups, but tight end Scott Orndoff (leg) and cornerbacks Trenton Coles and Titus Howard (head injuries) are keys to the cause. Pitt has depth at tight end, but Orndoff has good hands and two touchdowns among his six receptions.
Coles suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit when he collided with teammate Jason Hendricks last week. Howard, one of five Clairton graduates on the team, plays meaningful minutes in the sub-packages. That means starters Lafayette Pitts and K’Waun Williams will be supported by Montour’s E.J. Banks and Jahmahl Pardner, whose first tackles Saturday will be their first of the season. Pardner was a key component in the sub-packages at the start of last season before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Quick prediction: The offensive line, even without two starters, will block well enough to lead Pitt to a victory. Fortunately, the Tar Heels’ defensive front might be North Carolina’s weakest unit.
Given ample time to survey the field and make decisions, quarterback Tom Savage will have a good day. Maybe a big day for freshman running back James Conner, whose shoulder injury finally has healed.
Pitt 27, North Carolina 21.
One more prediction: Miami will beat Duke today in Durham, pushing the Hurricanes near the head of the class in the Coastal Division of the ACC. Virginia Tech, which lost at Boston College two weeks ago, will assume the division lead and the best chance to get crushed by Florida State in the Dr. Pepper ACC Championship Game on Dec. 7.
For those of you wondering if Pitt has a chance to claim the Coastal title by winning its three remaining games, forget it. The losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are the back-breaking tiebreakers.