PITTSBURGH — Pretty much anyone with eyes and a working understanding of passing routes could tell that Pitt had a lot of trouble with the wheel route in the Panthers’ 28-21 overtime victory over Youngstown State on Saturday.
The Penguins threw one on their very first drive and throughout the day, when they needed a big play, it was seemingly there whenever they wanted it, including for a 42-yard touchdown after a Max Browne fumble to tie the game with 3:35 remaining in the fourth quarter.
How did it work and why wasn’t Pitt able to adjust? It seems that Youngstown State offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery was able to exploit a weakness is Pat Narduzzi’s Cover-4 defense.
That shouldn’t be all the surprising. Montgomery was the offensive coordinator at Miami University from 2001 to 2004. Narduzzi came in as a new defensive coordinator in 2003 and installed the same defense he uses today. So Montgomery had a pretty solid scouting report from his own experience.
He also had the players to pull off the scheme, which is something that not every team has. The wheel route is a difficult one to throw. The timing of it can be strange the quarterback has to loft the ball and throw it to a spot far from where the running back is standing at release. Backs that can run the route quickly enough to give the quarterback time to make the pass and still haul in an over-the-shoulder the catch are pretty rare, as well.
The bad news for Pitt is that in Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, Penn State certainly possesses a combination of skill players that could absolutely torture the Panthers if adjustments aren’t made.
WHY IT WORKED
Here’s the set up the first time YSU called the pass. The Penguins have three receivers to the wide side of the field, the tight end on the boundary side and the running back as a sidecar in a shotgun set.
Because Pitt doesn’t bring an extra defensive back onto the field when other teams go three-wide, they have two corners, two safeties and three linebackers to cover the routes. Cornerback Dane Jackson will take the outside receiver at the top of the field, while Seun Idowu take the short route and hands off the deep route to the safety.
On the short side, cornerback Avonte Maddox goes down field with the tight end. I’m not sure if that was his assignment or not, but linebacker Elijah Zeise never reacts to the running back coming out of the backfield. Either Maddox should have let the tight end release to safety Dennis Briggs and picked up the back or Zeise was totally out to lunch on this play.
Montgomery then does a masterful job of using the first busted coverage to set up the next play. Youngstown State again attacked Pitt with the same three-wide formation. Again, there’s a wheel route from the back. This time, the tight end runs a crossing route instead of going up the seam. Maddox leaves him for the safety, but the tight end never gets that deep. Zeise goes to the back, leaving the tight end wide open underneath.
Montgomery then went back to the first play call, with the tight end running down the seam, but added a bit of motion. Maddox gets the back, but Zeise and Briggs are both frozen by the play-action on the motion man. Zeise doesn’t get any contact against the tight end and Briggs is beaten down the seam. Meanwhile, the motion man was even more wide open in the flat, left completely uncovered.
Here’s the same play call, with one receiver on the short side of the field now. I’m not sure if Maddox is supposed to be blitzing here or what, but Pitt doesn’t even come close to covering this one.
I think this is the point Montgomery realizes he really has something going with the wheel route. I’m not sure exactly why it’s causing so much confusion for the Pitt defense. A theory is that the handoff between the money linebacker and the boundary corner isn’t usually that complicated. The corner is usually in one-on-one coverage on the outside and those two don’t have to communicate that often. Either way, Montgomery put the wheel route away until he needed it later.
That came in the fourth quarter when YSU tied the game with essentially the same play. This time, the Penguins ran it out of a four-wide set and the Panthers actually covered it better. Zeise can be seen making a sign to change the coverage at the last second and does eventually lock on to the back, but his first step went the wrong way and he couldn’t catch up.
Then again, to tie the game, the Penguins ran it out of a four-wide look, this time with a trips alignment to the wide side. That left Zeise and Maddox the back and one receiver to deal with. Zeise reads the play, but YSU gets away with a pick that should have been offensive pass interference. I’m not sure Zeise was getting there, though, even if he went unmolested.
To summarize, Youngstown State used Pitt’s unwillingness to play extra defensive backs and to align both corners on the same side of the field against unbalanced looks to put a lot of pressure on the Panthers’ strong-side linebacker, which is the least athletic player of the seven Panthers in coverage.
The communication errors in the first half can be corrected, but if Penn State runs this play, it’s going to come down to Zeise trying to cover Barkley in open field, and I think that’s a huge mismatch for the Nittany Lions.
I wanted the defensive issues to be the focus here because I think they’re pretty pressing when it comes to Penn State on Saturday.
But I found something interesting on the offensive side of the ball that I wanted to highlight, too. With redshirt freshman Jimmy Morrissey making his first career appearance while starting at center, it seemed that Pitt was a little hesitant to run straight up the middle, particularly in obvious running situations.
The problem with that is that featured tailback Qadree Ollison is more of a straight-ahead runner than an East-West threat. To reconcile those things, Pitt used an unbalanced offensive line that put usual right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith as an eligible player to the outside of left tackle Brian O’Neill and tight end Matt Flanagan at in ineligible position at the right end of the line.
The twin tackles on the left provided plenty of running room on the edge for Ollison, and he scored both of his touchdowns behind that duo, along with some solid blocking from walk-on fullback Colton Lively.
I mentioned this is my game story, but it was too cool to not bring it up again. Here’s walk-on redshirt sophomore Rimoni Dorsey leaving the sideline just before the snap and getting himself into position to make a tackle just short of the sticks. It was the first time Dorsey had stepped on the field as a Panther.