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Villanova Football at Pittsburgh: 3 Things To Know About The Panthers

These Panthers have aspirations of playing for the ACC title in 2016.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Villanova travelled to Pittsburgh for a football game, someone forgot to tell a young Brian Westbrook that the I-A school was supposed to crush them. The Wildcats still lost the game, but the young tailback put on a show that fans are still talking about, and the score -- 48-41 -- was hardly what Panthers fans were expecting.

This time around, the Panthers are an ACC program gearing up for a campaign to win that league's Coastal Division title and a spot in the ACC title game. They won eight games last season after a period of struggles starting in 2010, and return 16 starters from last Fall. Villanova returns a good number of players as well, but will be testing a newly-reconfigured offensive line for the first time, and has three likely starters sitting on the sidelines after injuries in the offseason. Add to that a second-year quarterback who showed flashes of big talent, as well as some terrible turnovers, and the Wildcats are a true mystery entering the season.

Pitt insists they aren't looking past Villanova

Head coach Pat Narduzzi has told the media that his team isn't looking past Villanova. In their last three season openers, the 'Cats have played close games with Boston College, Syracuse, and UConn, and while those teams starred John Robertson at quarterback, the Panthers head coach doesn't want his team to leave their opener struggling.

That said, they'll follow up their meeting with Villanova with a hotly-anticipated contest against Penn State. It was a big off-field victory for the Panthers to finally get back onto Penn State's schedule, and in western Pennsylvania, it will certainly be the game of the week.

Pitt is a run-first offense

The Panthers are a low-risk offense that will look to move the ball on the ground this season. They have a big offensive line -- the smallest guy projected to play this weekend is Right Tackle Brian O'Neill at 300 pounds. As a group, they are going to be a very strong unit, and it will be a big challenge for Villanova's three-man defensive line to challenge them and disrupt their blocking schemes.

Behind that line, look for junior tailback, and 2014 ACC Player of the Year, James Connor to lead an emotional return to the gridiron, after battling a leg injury and a diagnosis of Hodgkins Lymphoma last year. He's back and has no limits placed on him by doctors or training staff for this game. He's at the top of the list, but the tailback rotation at Pitt is deep and you can expect them to be running with fresh legs all four quarters. Last season's starter (after Connor's injury), Qadree Ollison, is listed third on the depth chart -- jumped by Sophomore Darrin Hall -- and freshman Chawntez Moss is also likely to see some action.

Especially with the loss of Tyler Boyd (Cincinnati Bengals), the passing game is something of a question-mark heading into the season, but with their ability to run the ball, quarterback Nathan Peterman's arm may not need a big test.

Pitt's Defensive Line will make things difficult

Villanova also likes to run the ball, but don't count on that being easy on Saturday afternoon. The Panthers defensive line is huge up the middle, with 6-3, 335-pound Tyrique Jarrett anchoring the unit at nose tackle. Shakir Soto, at 6-3, 290-pounds, joins him in the middle after converting from end last season, and looked like a natural in Spring football and preseason.

That will put pressure on Villanova's offensive line to play mistake-free. They'll need a major effort to shut down the end rushers and create running lanes for Javon White and Aaron Forbes. Some quick passes to Jarrett McClenton over the middle may also keep them honest, and help buy quarterback Zach Bednarczyk some time to work.