PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s offense in crunch time has been a hot-button topic in the early part of the season, as the Panthers have been unable to generate the long scoring drives that have been their speciality in the fourth quarter when they really need them.
But there’s another area of “crunch time” that the Panthers are succeeding, and that’s in the red zone. In 17 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, Pitt has scored 15 touchdowns and kicked one field goal — good for a .941 conversion rate, tied for 20th in the country.
But that conversion rate only counts times scored versus times not scored. Pitt’s success goes beyond that, with the Panthers getting seven points the vast majority of the time. Pitt’s 15 red zone touchdowns is seventh in FBS, and all of the teams above them have had more red-zone attempts.
Simply put, no one has been more prolific at score touchdowns from the red zone that Pitt has this season. It’s a pretty big improvement from a year ago, as well, when the Panthers had 30 touchdowns and 10 field goals in 48 red zone attempts.
I asked Pat Narduzzi on Thursday whether that was intentional area the team sought out improvement when he and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada installed their new offense this spring.
“You want to be good at everything,” Narduzzi said. “You don’t bring in a new coordinator and say, ‘Hey listen, we’ve got to be better in the red zone.’ I know we kicked more field goals down there a year ago. … You don’t base it off [what we did] before and what [we’re] going to do now. … A year ago, it was just a totally different offense, to be honest with you.”
Instead, Narduzzi gave Canada credit for creating an offense that works as well in the middle of the field as it does when things get tighter closer to the goal line.
“[It’s] a good game plan and the style of offense we’ve got,” Narduzzi said. “I think we have a lot of confusion with the defense as far s the motions. We run our base plays and we’re giving opportunities for our tailbacks to run.”
It hasn’t just been the tailbacks, either. Fullback George Aston has three scores. Tight end Scott Onrdoff has a touchdown and so does quarterback Nate Peterman. Aston has been used in a bunch of creative ways, but the most deadly has been on a jet sweep — not exactly the typical look for an fullback.
“The jets we run are a lot more explosive [than what we ran last year],” Aston said. “I feel like the defense doesn’t really know who’s getting the ball, ever. We have tons of guys who can make plays, so they have a lot to worry about.”
Aston’s three scores — second behind James Conner’s four on the team — have come on just eight total carries. But that’s not even the most satisfying part of his game.
“Whatever works, I’m happy with [running the ball],” Aston said. “Honestly, my touchdowns, on those plays, I have the easiest job out of anybody. I’m usually just walking into the end zone, not even getting touched. I feel like blocking is harder than that.”
Aston spends plenty of time blocking, as well. After he missed the opener against Villanova, the team cited his absence as reason the running game never got untracked. They averaged 2.5 yards per carry in the opener. Since then, Pitt has 912 yards on 165 carries — a 5.53 average.
“I trust in Coach Canada,” Aston said, shrugging off the credit. “I feel like any play he calls is going to work.”