PITTSBURGH — Maybe even more so than the musical chairs being played at quarterback, Pitt’s lack of a running game continues to hold the Panthers’ offense back.
Saturday against North Carolina State Pitt ran the ball 32 times for 95 yards — a 3-yard per carry average. But most of Pitt’s rushing yards came from non-running back options. Safety Jordan Whitehead had 18 yards, as did backup quarterback Kenny Pickett. Quadree Henderson had 15 yards on one carry. Left tackle Brian O’Neill had 10 on his lateral.
Running backs Darrin Hall, Qadree Ollison and A.J. Davis combined for 35 yards on 13 carries for 2.69 yards per carry. Pitt ranks 117th nationally in yards per carry on the season.
For this week’s film study, I took a look at every single one of Pitt’s running plays against NC State to see if I could tease out any trends. I eliminated quarterback runs, because it’s sometimes hard to tell if they are designed runs or passes, and they’re usually blocked like they’re passes, anyway.
Let’s start from the very first play of the game when Darrin Hall runs inside left, Brian O’Neill gets smoked by Bradley Chubb and there’s no gain.
In the second series, Jordan Whitehead gained five yards on a toss to the left. This is a similar play that he used with a lot of success against Syracuse, with the wrinkle of the fake jet sweep action.
Later in that drive, they tried a straight toss to the right, but Whitehead was stopped for no gain.
Notice on both of those plays the amount of penetration the NC State defensive line got straight ahead. Whitehead was running to the outside, but he’d have been tackled for a loss if the play was run in between the tackles.
On the third drive, Pitt uses a nice blocking scheme to isolate center Jimmy Morrissey on the NC State middle linebacker, but Morrissey can’t make the block and what could have been a nice gain for Darrin Hall ends up as a four-yard gain.
Later that drive, Pitt tried to get Hall going inside and got no push at all. He was stuffed for one tough yard.
In the second quarter, Pitt was backed up at its own 4-yard line. Hall got a straight-ahead handoff, NC State overwhelmed the blocking scheme, and Hall was nearly tackled for a loss. Instead, he broke the arm tackle and went for nine yards.
The stat gurus called this play a pass, but it’s essentially a carry. Whitehead again takes the toss from DiNucci and makes a man miss off the left end for an 8-yard gain.
Later in that drive, both Qadree Ollison and Hall tried the middle. Neither got more than a yard or two, again with minimal push by the line.
The next series was Pitt’s best running the ball. Whitehead took another toss-sweep left for 8 yards. On the next play, Ollison reads a run blitz, steps out of an arm tackles and rumbles for 15.
Another Whitehead toss-sweep left was good for 3 yards and then Henderson busted open an end around for 15.
Whitehead then popped off a 6-yard gain on a Wildcat run around the left side that could have gone for a touchdown if it had been a clean snap.
Whitehead ran another sweep, O’Neill took his lateral to the 1-yard line and Hall punched it in.
Pitt ran sparingly in the second half, when they were losing and trying to come back and didn’t have the ball much thanks to long NC State drives.
What’s clear is that almost all of Pitt’s rushing success has come from the individual talent of the players involved. Whether it’s Whitehead or Henderson using their speed and quickness to beat people to the edges and make people miss or Hall or Ollison breaking through arm tackles to get extra yards, when Pitt has done well running the ball, it’s mostly been on the ball carrier.
Particularly inside, there have been very few plays that were blocked so well that the rusher had a big hole or an easy gain. NC State has a solid defensive front, but this isn’t the first time this has come up with the Panthers this season. For a fairly veteran group, Pitt’s offensive line needs to get a better push if the Panthers are going to be able to run the ball.