While Pitt is battling just to finish at .500 for the regular season, and become bowl eligible, the number of injuries hasn't exactly helped matters. In last Friday's loss at West Virginia, freshman running back Isaac Bennett suddenly found himself as the go-to guy in the fourth quarter.
"I didn't think about it too much," Bennett said. "I was just playing the game."
Bennett touched the ball more than any other Pitt offensive player on Friday night; 16 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown with another 2 catches for 23 yards.
Since Pitt's opener against Buffalo, the Panthers have lost starters Ray Graham, Chris Jacobson and Cameron Saddler for the season. They lost starter Lucas Nix for five games, before he returned this past week.
Then, as others worked their way into the starting lineup, they too got injured. Matt Rotheram became a starter at both right guard and right tackle, before an ankle injury ended his season in the UConn game.
As a result, players like Zach Brown and Ronald Jones were pressed into valuable roles—Brown in for Graham, Jones in for Saddler. Jones added an additional responsibility of ‘Wildcat' quarterback. It may not have been the way Graham wanted to bring these players up through the system. Heading into this last game, as the injuries continue to mount, he's finding he needs more players—whether it's to start, or for certain packages.
Both Brown and Jones were injured in the first half against West Virginia game—Brown with a bruised sternum, and Jones with a concussion. The status for both players remains up in the air heading into Saturday's game with Syracuse. Even Bennett had to battle through a variety of ailments including dehydration and cramps.
"Zach and Ronald did not practice (Tuesday)," head coach Todd Graham said. "Lucas is good. Bennett is good to go."
In fact, as a result of previous injuries and the recent ones in this West Virginia game, Graham had the players practice with no pads on Tuesday.
"Didn't wear pads Tuesday, because have some guys banged up," Graham said. "Still had a good practice and had a lot of energy for this final game-week preparation."
Jones' role is so valuable, that even his status as the ‘Wildcat' quarterback has been a hot topic this week heading into this week's Syracuse game. Anthony Gonzalez has been filling in there.
We'll have Tino, Mark, Anthony and Ronald working at quarterback in different situations, we have a little package for Anthony with a similar package for Ronald," Graham said. "Gonzalez looked good in the Wildcat; getting him ready in case Ronald can't go. We were trying to teach Anthony how to play the 3-back, but (Wildcat quarterback) is something we think he can do as well."
The result of all these injuries—especially at tailback—has forced true freshmen like Bennett and Corey Davis into action. Both players battled all season just to be in position as the third-string running back. Friday, Pitt needed them in the worst way. In addition to the number of touches Bennett had, Davis finished the game with two carries and a reception. In fact, players like Desmond Brown and Malcolm Crockett—the next guys in line—weren't too far away from getting in Friday's game.
"Desmond was on Scout team, but we moved him down and we were one play from burning Malcolm Crockett's redshirt," Graham said.