Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his 3-4 scheme presented something of a challenge for Pitt on Saturday, even though it may not have shown up on the scoreboard in a 45-31 Panthers win.
What the Cavaliers were able to do effectively was shut down Pitt’s jet sweep game, something that has been working extremely well for Matt Canada’s offense this season. Particularly in the early part of the game, the jet sweep wasn’t moving the sticks for the Panthers.
I don’t expect it to cause Canada to lose any sleep, though, and here’s why. Watch how the Virginia defense reacts to these two early jet sweeps by Jordan Whitehead and Qadree Ollison. The outside linebacker, inside linebacker and safety on the sweep side of the field all aggressively get up to the line of scrimmage and attack the man in motion.
But what the Cavaliers allowed by being aggressive against the sweeps probably hurt them just as badly. With the sweep-side inside linebacker focused on motion man, the inside zone handoff became a much more valuable tool for the Panthers.
Watch as right inside linebacker Zach Bradshaw, No 51, takes his first step towards Quadree Henderson, the motion man. When he recognizes that James Conner has the ball, he’s a step late getting into the hole and has to hit Conner from the side instead of straight on. That doesn’t work out well for Bradshaw.
Here’s another example for the fourth quarter. Bradshaw’s first step is toward George Aston, the motion man. Again, he’s unable to react in time to square to Conner, who this time, runs right past him.
That’s the beauty of this play. It’s blocked the same way for each play. If the opposing defense wants to be aggressive with the attacking the motion man, the inside zone can pay big dividends. If the defense stays put, Henderson and company can run wild around the end.
Virginia succeeded in finding a way to stop part of the package, but not all of it. Expect it to remain a staple of Pitt’s offense until someone finds a way to completely shut it down.
BIG PLAYS, BIG BLOCKS
Pitt scored three touchdowns on plays of 25 yards or longer Saturday and each of them required some key blocks to happen. I thought I’d highlight the blocks behind the big plays.
Nate Peterman found Jester Weah in one-on-one coverage for this 38-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Weah’s size and athleticism helped turn what was a nice gain into a touchdown, but it was the picture-perfect pass blocking of the Pitt offensive line that gave Peterman the time to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike. The end zone angle shows it beautifully.
The next big-play strike for Pitt was Quadree Henderson’s 93-yard kick return for a touchdown. Henderson is a return demon. He’s the only player in the country with two kickoff runbacks for scores this season, he’s third in the nation in yards per return and he was named the ACC Specialist of the Week for the second time this season.
But his touchdown against Virginia was made possible by some adept blocking way down field. When Henderson makes his big cutback to the right, look at the position of Darrin Hall (22 center-left) and Rafael Araujo-Lopes (82, bottom left)
Araujo-Lopes and Hall recognize that Henderson has found some space and has a shot at a big return. They both sprint downfield and do excellent jobs of shielding Henderson while not committing a block-in-the-back foul. Reggie Mitchell does the same, but he isn’t able to find a blocker as the Cavaliers didn’t have great lane discipline on this return.
At the end of the first half, Jordan Whitehead’s interception return for a touchdown was a dagger that gave the Panthers all the momentum heading into the half. Put it probably doesn’t happen if he doesn’t get a pair of key blocks from linebackers Bam Bradley and Quintin Wirginis.
Watch as Bradley lays out left tackle Jack English and Wirginis drives quarterback Kurt Benkert down the field, providing a cutback lane for Whitehead.
Whitehead was named the ACC’s Defensive Back of the Week for his big play, but both he and Henderson were rightfully complementary of their downfield blockers for their big plays.