PITTSBURGH — From the jet sweeps to James Conner and Chawntez Moss, the Panthers have had serious production from the running game in 2016, and it’s been the dynamo of the offense to this point.
But something changed over the last few weeks. Pitt’s passing game — which had mostly been relegated to slants, screens and other underneath passes — has opened up some deeper passing routes.
In Pitt’s first four games, quarterback Nate Peterman attempted 94 passes and completed 58 of them for 643 yards — 6.8 yards per attempt. In the following four games, Peterman has completed 55 of 86 for 876 yards — 10.2 yards per attempt.
While a lot of that extra yardage has come on two big catch-and-runs plays by tight end Scott Orndoff, there’s no question that the Pitt offense has been looking down the field more often. Dontez Ford, Quadree Henderson, Tre Tipton and Jester Weah all averaged more than 10 yards per catch Thursday night.
“I feel like the passing game has really improved,” Weah said after Pitt’s practice Tuesday. “I feel like it’s been improving week-by-week. I’ve seen that.”
One of the reasons the mid-range passing game has opened up is that more teams are focusing on the jet sweep action pre-snap. If the safeties are moving down on the motion man, that leaves less help for deep routes over the top.
“I love it when it’s one on one and I’m on the outside,” Weah added.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi loves to call college football a copycat game. With Pitt’s corners facing fade after fade against the tall, physical receiver corps of Virginia Tech last week, Weah was thinking that’s something he could be doing more of.
“I believe that,” he said. “I’m a pretty big receiver, too.”
Weah started the season behind Ford on the depth chart, but thanks to the former’s collarbone injury, he’s been elevated to starter and has likely done enough to maintain his hold on the top share of minutes.
TRICK OR TREAT?
Running back James Conner spoke about the team’s success with trick plays this season, as highlighted by right tackle Brian O’Neill’s second rushing touchdown of the season Thursday night.
“It’s cool that Big Brian is getting a lot of publicity for his touchdowns,” said senior running back James Conner. “Every week we come up with up with something different. We don’t even know what to expect. We like to execute it. [Offensive coordinator Matt] Canada is all for trying to mix things up and being an exciting and explosive offense. It’s fun playing for him.”
But tight ends coach Tim Salem was quick to point out that those plays are only fun when the team executes them.
“That’s fun football. Our kids have a little bit of pizzaz getting to experience all of that,” Salem said. “But they make it work. You can call those fancy plays, but if they don’t do it, it looks terrible and it’s not very imaginative and everyone’s complaining.”
The players are having fun with it, and they know if they want the fun to continue, it will require max effort and concentration.
“I don’t think we’ve run a trick play that didn’t work yet. He’s preaching everybody doing their job and doing it well blocking it up,” Conner said. “We’ve been executing and all of our trick plays have been working. We’re confident in him and he’s confident in us.”