This week on Film Study, I’m breaking down Darrin Hall’s record-breaking, 254-yard, three-touchdown performance on Saturday. Hall got the starring role in the performance, and was recognized as the ACC’s Offensive Back of the Week as a result.
But Hall’s success had just as much to do with the performances of a couple of much-maligned factors in Pitt’s rough start running the ball this year: offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and the offensive line.
Let’s start from the very first Pitt drive of the game. I like to look at the opening drive, particularly on offense, because those plays are scripted and thought out ahead of time. So they can really give some insight into what the coaches are thinking.
It’s important to note that Duke spends most of its time in a 4-2-5 Nickel defense, so there aren’t a lot of lessons that can be transferred from this week’s film moving forward, particularly against the 3-4 front of Virginia next Saturday.
Pitt’s first play was something that I spotted the Panthers working on during the week, which was an inside zone handoff with jet sweep action. Here it is, with Maurice Ffrench coming in motion and Qadree Ollison lined up at what Pitt calls a “G-back” spot.
Ffrench’s action to the short side of the field brings the nickel back across the formation, Flanagan heads wide as a dummy lead blocker for Ffrench, taking a corner with him. Ollison runs down the line to cut the short side defense end. That leaves three defensive linemen and two linebackers for the Pitt line, and they handle them all. Watch, in particular, Jimmy Morrissey and Brian O’Neill move their players back and to the right, providing running room for Hall.
Later on that drive, it’s a very similar play, with the motion going to the wide side instead and Flanagan kicking out the short side end from the “G” position. Alex Officer and O’Neill get driven back, but Morrissey and Chris Clark get to the second level quickly and Hall finds the gap in between for a good gain.
Here’s another one from the same drive. Watch the safety bail to go to Quadree Henderson, leaving Hall with more room to run inside.
Of course, Pitt wasn’t just running the inside zone. They were also giving the ball to the receivers on the sweep and letting Ben DiNucci run ISO plays on the outside.
So when Pitt lined up with basically the same play to start the second drive of the game, the same thing happened. The safety bails to follow the jet sweep motion and this time, the second safety is slow to react to the play and just gets beat to the spot by Hall, who goes untouched for the score.
Here’s another look at the offensive line. Officer does a great job of absorbing the run blitzing linebacker. Morrissey, in a solo block against the DT, drives him so far out of the hole, you could have fit four of Hall in it.
On Hall’s second long TD run, it’s again basically the same call: inside zone with jet sweep motion. This time, instead of staying with the play to the left, Hall cuts it back inside the kick of “G” back Flanagan. The time he hesitates to find the hole lets the free safety overrun the play, and Hall has another long score.
The fact that Pitt remained dedicated to giving the ball on the jet sweep, even though they weren’t always big gains, kept the Duke defense from keying on the inside zone, even though Pitt was gashing them with it. It’s a classic case of not being able to defend everything. The answer to that is to drop a safety down into the box and leave corners with 1-on-1 coverage down the field.
When Duke did that later in the game, DiNucci found Jester Weah twice for big gains to set up Hall’s third score. Again, watch the jet sweep motion and the reaction it gets from Duke’s defense.
So what does this mean big picture? Structurally, not much, as Pitt won’t face a ton of the 4-2-5 defense they saw on Saturday the rest of the way. From a performance standpoint, Hall looked good and used his speed to break away when given the chance.
But as much as anything, this was about Pitt’s offensive line making some holes and Watson looking comfortable calling the running game in this offense for the first time.
I think it’s important to note that, when evaluating Watson’s job as an offensive coordinator. He didn’t design this offense, he’s just using it. The offense came with a playbook, but not exactly instructions on how to use it. That knowledge — what plays and formations work the best against certain defenses and how to set up one play with another — left with Matt Canada.
The fact that Watson seemed to win the tactical matchup against a very good running defense against Duke is a good sign for Pitt in the future.