DURHAM, N.C. — It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t particularly pretty, but Pitt escaped North Carolina with a 24-17 win over the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday.
The Panthers’ offense worked in just fits and starts for most of the day, with the exception being a breakout performance by junior running back Darrin Hall.
Through most of Hall’s three years with the Panthers, he’s been seen as little more than a change of pace or secondary option when another back isn’t getting the job done.
With Chawntez Moss suspended and the offensive line struggling to find room for Qadree Ollison, the Pitt coaches decided last week to start Hall against NC State to see if he could provide the answer.
Hall did not have eye-popping numbers against the Wolfpack, gaining 17 yards on nine carries while scoring a 1-yard touchdown. This week, he exploded for 254 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries, including scores of 76 and a Pitt school record 92 yards.
The difference was part scheme and part execution when it came to the offensive line opening up holes for Hall.
“We did a few different little things that we like to do,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We won’t get into specifics.”
Narduzzi also credited Brian O’Neill for stepping up as a leader on the offensive line and taking responsibly for the team’s running game troubles thus far.
“Darrin made some plays and the offensive line, you know, I credit Brian O’Neill, just for (them) sticking together,” Narduzzi said. “He’s really leading that offensive line and talked about just wanting to run some certain plays, which we won’t talk about. It doesn’t really matter what it is. But Brian spear-headed an attitude. Brian O’Neill, you know, he’s not a captain but he’s a big-time leader in there. So I give him credit for just being vocal and speaking his mind and being a leader there.”
Pitt’s offensive line isn’t exactly hurting for experience with seniors Alex Officer, Jaryd Jones-Smith and Brandon Hodges and redshirt juniors, O’Neill, Alex Bookser, Mike Herndon and Conor Dintino. Bookser said O’Neill helped remind them of that.
“Brian’s really good at reminding us that we have some good football players on this team,” Bookser said. “We have plenty of them, and we have a number of good ones on the offensive line. We take a lot of the blame for what our record is right now. He makes it a point to remind us that it’s our responsibility that we have to play better. He does a really good job of that.”
It’s one thing for the line to open up holes. It’s another thing for the line to open up holes so big that no one touches the running back. It’s even another thing for a running back to go 70 or 90 yards down field without getting caught from behind, regardless of how big the holes are.
Hall hadn’t showed that ability on the field in his three seasons at Pitt, but Bookser said it has always been there.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” he said. “You watch him in camp. He’s phenomenal. I call him ‘Juice’ He runs like O.J. Simpson. Dude does not go down and he’s one of the fastest guys on the team, low-key. Once he gets going, I don’t see him getting caught. … It was exciting to see him perform at a level that we knew he could.”
Hall was an unlikely contributor in that type of role for the Panthers this year, who returned a 1,000-yard rusher in Ollison, a promising player in Moss that played ahead of Hall as a true freshman last year, and two four-star freshmen in A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley that have pushed for playing time.
“I don’t know what it is, but you talk about adversity, he’s been back and forth,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a kid that doesn’t say anything. He’s the nicest kid in the world, (an) Austintown Fitch Youngstown boy. He doesn’t say a word and every day just goes out and works. He’s not a high-maintenance guy. He’s low-maintenance, as low as you get, and I couldn’t be happier for a guy who just shuts his mouth, does his job, and when the opportunity arose, really the last two weeks, he’s had that opportunity to go out there and be the guy.”
Pitt’s running back position is anything but solidified going forward. Moss’ suspension remains “indefinite,” so he could return at any time. Ollison has played well and remains the best pass protector of the bunch. Jordan Whitehead was limited on offense on Saturday but remains a threat to take big-time reps at a moment’s notice.
But the Panthers seem to have something in Hall that hasn’t been seen publicly before in a home-run hitter type back that can also take three yards at a time when he needs to, as well.
“All I had to do is press the line of scrimmage and the hole is so big it’s hard to miss it,” Hall said. “A five-yard run on first down is really good. “
STICKING WITH IT
Ben DiNucci started and played the entire game after having been replaced by true freshman Kenny Pickett in the third quarter a week ago.
DiNucci was not particularly effective passing the ball, going just 8 of 18 for 149 yards, but Narduzzi thought he did enough overall when it came to making the right reads and checks and taking care of the football to stay in the game.
“I thought he was playing well enough,” Narduzzi said. “Zero turnovers, he did a good job with the ball and made good decisions. He threw a couple away. I wish he would’ve thrown one more away; I think we took a sack where we didn’t want to. He scrambled when he should, maybe he could’ve had one or two (more) in there. So, he protected the football and made good decisions.”
DiNucci had exactly one turnover a week ago when he was replaced at a critical time by Pickett. If that’s Narduzzi’s only criteria for deciding whether or not to pull a quarterback, so be it, but statistically, DiNucci was far better against NC State than he was against Duke.
It also seems pretty evident that DiNucci is going to get the majority of the reps at quarterback going forward, which makes Narduzzi’s flip-flop last week — and the decision to remove Pickett’s redshirt in the first place — seem like a questionable decision.
Narduzzi said he believes that the competition has helped DiNucci.
“He’s competing and he knows the heat’s on him, and that’s the great thing,” Narduzzi said. “I know you guys whine and wonder why, but you know what? When you know that the coaches don’t hesitate to put somebody in there, it makes you go prepare harder.”
When Narduzzi and DiNucci talked about the plan this week for when Pickett would play — after there was apparently some type of miscommunication between the two last week — DiNucci made it clear that he wanted to remain in the game.
“When Coach Narduzzi asked me (when Pickett was going to play), I said I’m going to play well enough that you’re not going to have to put him in, so I’ll be able to stay in the whole game,” DiNucci said.
But DiNucci also admitted that he did not have the best day passing.
“I was kind of rough on myself in that first half,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily making the throws I’ve normally made. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t going off well.”
LOSSES PILING UP
Pitt suffered what appeared to be another potentially long-term injury, when starting boundary cornerback Avonte Maddox left the game in the third quarter when he got tangled up with a receiver while breaking up a pass. Maddox fell down awkwardly on his right arm and had it in a sling afterwards.
“He got hurt,” Narduzzi said, while noting that he does not typically discuss injuries.
Without Maddox, Pitt used a combination of Therran Coleman, Phillipie Motley and Jason Pinnock, to mixed results. They kept the Blue Devils out of the end zone, but also gave up a good amount of yardage as Duke was trying to come back late. Quarterback Daniel Jones finished 15 of 33 for 272 yards and had two touchdowns.
“Avonte, he’s like the vocal guy on the defense,” Whitehead said. “If he goes down, someone’s got to step up. The defense overall played good, but if a young guy comes in, the coaches will be telling him to calm down. They have to keep their composure and not get to riled up, just how we practice every day. I think we did pretty good out there. … We were playing pretty good on defense the first half. The second half, we’ve just got to keep that motor on like the first half.”
GOOD HANDS TEAM
The game turned on a pair of nifty catches. Jester Weah outmuscled a Duke defender for a 49-yard completion that set up Hall’s third score. Then, Whitehead grabbed a tipped ball for an interception to stop Duke’s final drive.
“There was a couple opportunities left out there, so I had to make something count,“ Whitehead said.