In Pitt’s 35-17 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday, the Panthers gave up 436 yards rushing, mostly to the Yellow Jackets’ flexbone, triple-option attack.
It was a big step back for Pitt’s defense from their relative dominance a year ago and even their previous form against that offense.
A year ago, in Pitt’s victory over the Yellow Jackets at Heinz Field, the Panthers held Georgia Tech to 241 yards rushing. In 2015, they allowed 376 yards rushing in a win at Georgia Tech and 417 yards rushing in a loss at Navy in the Military Bowl.
But after watching the tape, I wouldn’t put the loss on Pitt’s defense. They did more than enough to keep the team in the game, including an unprecedented four takeaways, one of which almost assuredly took seven points away from Georgia Tech.
The problem was that the defense was on the field way, way too much. Here’s a breakdown of opposition time of possession versus rushing yards for Pitt’s four games against the flexbone under Narduzzi.
In Pitt’s two victories, they had one game where the time of possession was essentially 50-50 and another when they won the time of possession. In their two losses, they were dominated.
The problem with Pitt’s offense on Saturday was that far too often, they weren’t able to put together long drives. On three of the four drives that followed a Georgia Tech turnover, they went three-and-out. They went 1-for-13 on third-down conversions on the day, and one of those was a fumble of their own on a 3rd-and-1. The one conversion they got was on the last offensive play before the end of the first half, so it didn’t even help them extend a drive (it did give Alex Kessman enough room to boot a 55-yard field goal.)
Pitt’s third-down issues stemmed from the fact that they were often in third-and-long situations. Here are Pitt’s third down plays:
3rd and 9: Incomplete pass
3rd and 12: Incomplete pass
3rd and 5: 1-yard pass
3rd and 6: Incomplete pass
3rd and 10: 11-yard pass
3rd and 12: 5-yard pass
3rd and 11: 6-yard pass
3rd and 10: 15-yard loss on a sack
3rd and 1: Fumble
3rd and 6: Incomplete pass
3rd and 10: 4-yard loss on a sack
3rd and 7: 4-yard pass
3rd and 5: Incomplete pass
Pitt’s average distance to gain on third downs was eight yards. That’s mostly because the Panthers like to run on first and second downs and they averaged just 1.9 yards per rush — 1.8 yards per carry by running backs Qadree Ollison and Chawntez Moss.
So what was the issue? Well, it mostly came down to blocking. Pitt’s offensive line didn’t have a very good day, but it wasn’t all linemen that contributed to the blocking issues.
Here’s a play from Pitt’s second series. Pitt has six blockers for six men in the box, with the free safety the lone unaccounted-for player. Pitt is passing the blocks to the right on their line. Fullback George Aston has the defensive end. Tight end Matt Flanagan chips the end and then heads to the tackle. Tackle Brandon Hodges heads also for the tackle and center Jimmy Morrissey is free to get to the second level.
Flanagan and Hodges both hit the defensive tackle, but neither is able to secure a solid block and he makes the stop for a 2-yard gain.
Here’s the very next play. Ben DiNucci is going to run to his right out of the shotgun. Ollison and Flanagan both go out into the slot to block for him and neither gets ahold of anyone. DiNucci is dropped for a loss, setting up a 3rd and 9.
Here’s another play where Flanagan is being asked to account for a defender at the point of attack, this time with Chawntez Moss running. Flanagan goes right past KeShun Freeman, who makes an easy stop on what could have been a big gain.
Early in the second half, here’s another Ollison handoff and left guard Alex Officer never even gets close to blocking his man. Another tackle for a loss.
The blocking issues didn’t stop on running plays. Here’s DiNucci running for his life after a broken play. But he has blockers in front of him with a lot of room to run. At one point, he has four linemen within two yards of two Yellow Jackets, and they didn’t block either of them.
This play is a bubble screen to Quadree Henderson, who is lined up in the slot with Jester Weah outside of him. Weah simply blocks the wrong man, leaving Henderson with a one-on-one matchup with a corner closing to the ball with his shoulders square instead of a trailing linebacker.
Then there were some missed assignments in pass protection, as well. Here, Pitt has seven blockers in pass protection to deal with five rushers. Alex Bookser is pulling to sell the play action, and he and Moss are responsible for defensive end Anree Saint-Amour. Neither gets there and Saint-Amour flushes DiNucci from the pocket.
Here’s a huge play from the fourth quarter, when Pitt was still only trailing by 11 points. They faced a 3rd and 10, but would have probably gone for it on fourth down with a reasonable gain, given the score and the field position. Instead, Jaryd Jones-Smith was beaten off the edge, DiNucci never had a chance and Pitt had to punt.
Max Browne played the final two drives for Pitt and he did show more poise throwing the ball down the field than DiNucci did, but he also continued to show poor pocket awareness. Bookser is now at right tackle and gets beaten with a speed rush around the end. He is able to get just enough of his man to force him to take a wide loop around the end.
Browne has all kinds of space to run to his right and step up into the spot vacated by Bookser and his man. Browne is a right-handed quarterback. Escaping to the right should be his default maneuver in order to keep his options available. Instead, he ran directly to where Bookser blocked his guy for an easy sack.
In summation, Pitt did not block its scheme well enough execute the offense, both from the linemen and the backs and receivers on both running and passing plays. It almost makes the evaluation of the rest of the offense impossible, but I would lean on more escapable players like DiNucci and Moss going forward if Pitt’s going to consistently have blocking issues.