After re-watching the game tape off Pitt’s 45-38 loss to Oklahoma State and Stillwater, here’s three big things that caught my eye:
Pitt had to know coming into the game that Oklahoma State was going to throw the ball deep down the field. If they didn’t know coming in, they found out pretty quickly, as James Washington’s 99-yard touchdown pass set the tone for the rest of the game.
Oklahoma State’s willingness and ability to connect on the deep pass presented something of an existential challenge for Pat Narduzzi’s defense. Pitt plays under the assumption that most college quarterbacks and receivers don’t have the ability to make that play over and over again throughout the course of the game, so the Panthers focus on stopping the run and the underneath passing game.
With the Cowboys, however, not only were they able throw the ball deep, they seemed to actually prefer it. Quarterback Mason Rudolph was completing lob after lob over the top of the Pitt defensive formation while safeties and linebackers stood uselessly in short zones. Pitt also had cornerbacks Ryan Lewis and Avonte Maddox in press coverage for a good portion of the game.
Press coverage can disrupt the timing of a short route, but its utility lessens the deeper the pass play. The Panthers were trying to take away a pass Oklahoma State wasn’t trying to throw and stop a run game the Cowboys were’t committed to, while leaving the focus of their offense literally wide open.
When Pitt did finally back off the cornerbacks, it became clear why that was Oklahoma State’s game plan — Rudolph wasn’t particularly accurate underneath. On short hitches and stop routes, he frequently overthrew or underthrew his targets, causing receivers to have to lose their forward momentum to make the catch, which allowed quick tackles by the Pitt secondary. That was the pass Pitt should have been willing to concede from the get-go.
Though two games, Pitt had done a good job of giving James Conner rest while still keeping the offense moving forward. That stopped on Saturday, as backups Darrin Hall and Chawntez Moss weren’t able to do much running the ball and Qadree Ollison never even saw the field.
We’ll find out more from Pat Narduzzi about the decision to not play Ollison today, but the lack of production from the other running backs, who totaled just 25 yards, is a concern at what was supposed to be the strength of the team.
Meanwhile, with Dontez Ford (collarbone) out and the team trailing more often than not, the Panthers’ depth at wide receiver was testing in a big way.
Quadree Henderson continues to do his thing and his 164 all-purpose yards were second only to Conner. But the downfield passing game still doesn’t seem to be a part of it. He caught just two balls for 31 yards and 22 of them came on a wonderfully executed route on the opening series.
Jester Weah showed what he’s capable of with a 60-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown that broke one tackle but also took advantage of a missed assignment. But Weah was quiet the rest of the day, catching just one other pass despite five more targets. He was also flagged for a false-start penalty — a big-time no-no for a split end.
For whatever reason, Tre Tipton was never targeted until the final drive of the game, when he caught all three targets for 27 yards, including in athletic, one-handed grab. Tipton seems to be the receiver that most duplicates the abilities of Ford, with his solid route-running and sure hands. I’d expect Tipton to have an increased role in the passing game going forward.
Ejuan Price had a pair of sacks — including a crucial forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Matt Galambos — but that and a sack by Mike Caprara was the extent of the pressure from Pitt’s defensive front. Not only did no one else record a sack against Rudolph, he wasn’t hurried a single time according to the official statistics.
In order to throw the ball deep down field, an offense needs a strong-armed quarterback, fast receivers and an offensive line that can protect the pocket long enough for the play to develop. On some of the Cowboy’s deep balls, Rudolph had so much time that he nearly waited too long to throw the ball and ended up slightly underthrowing his downfield receivers.
The defensive line wasn’t doing much against the run, either, as most of the Cowboy’s rushing plays went wide to the outside. In total, Shakir Soto, Tyrique Jarrett and Rori Blair combined for just six tackles.