PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s running game exploded to life on Saturday, with senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall putting the Panthers on their backs and dragging the team to a 44-37 overtime victory over Syracuse.
From a blocking standpoint to scheme to the execution of the two tailbacks, it looks like Pitt’s running game has the potential to be a true force to be reckoned with.
The Panthers’ passing attack, however, has fallen on hard times. As the midpoint of the 2018 college football season nears, the Panthers have averaged 149.2 yards per game aerially. That figure is the fourth-worst amongst Power Five teams, edging out Kentucky, Maryland and the option attack of Georgia Tech.
That unit wasn’t helped last Saturday by the absence of wide receiver Taysir Mack. The Indiana transfer is still the Panthers’ leading receiver despite missing the Syracuse game with an undisclosed right foot/ankle injury. He has 12 catches for 265 yards. Head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Monday that he “didn’t know” if Mack would be available heading into Saturday’s trip to No. 5 Notre Dame.
But beyond the statistical struggles and the lack of a true top receiving option, it appeared that some combination of Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson completely lost faith in the ability of Kenny Pickett and company to move the ball down the field against the Orange.
The Panthers finished off the game by calling a running play on 17 of the final 18 snaps after Pickett was sacked, fumbled and turned the ball over to set up a fourth-quarter Syracuse field goal.
After the game, Narduzzi said that it was the offensive line’s inability to protect Pickett that was his primary motivation for pulling the plug on the passing game. Monday, he doubled down on that idea, saying that his blockers haven’t given Pickett enough time to show what he’s capable.
“First play of the game, he shoots it out there and then after that it felt like we didn’t get in a rhythm where he’s got time,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got to give Kenny time.”
The inability to pass protect is at an odd juxtaposition to the rest of the line’s play, which has been nothing short of extraordinary.
“They like to run block,” Narduzzi said. “They like that attitude stuff. So we certainly are [run-blocking better.]”
But just running the ball isn’t always going to the answer. Notre Dame has the No. 40 run defense in the country. No. 7 Miami and No. 8 Virginia Tech loom further down the schedule. If Pitt has hopes of beating some of the talented opponents remaining on its schedule, a balanced attack is going to be necessary.
“We’ve got to progress,” Narduzzi said. “That’s a goal this week is we’ve got to get that passing game going against an athletic secondary and an athletic pass rush this week, so we’ve got to do some good things to help change it up.”
As to how, well Narduzzi was thin on details, just saying that they need to get Pickett and his receivers into a rhythm while taking what’s being given to them by opposing defenses.
One of the big things the Panthers need to do is just hang onto the ball. Pickett has thrown five interceptions, which is tied for 24th in the country and also lost of a fumble.
CORNERS PLAYING UP
Narduzzi was complimentary of the efforts of Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis in pass coverage all game, in addition to the late-game heroics of Therran Coleman.
“Jason Pinnock had a great week last week, I guess for the UCF game did a good job at the nickel, then he goes and has another great week at corner,” Narduzzi said. “We’re playing the hot guys, the guys who are doing little things right. It’s not about who’s the best and who’s the best player out there. It’s about who’s making the plays and who’s doing the detail things right, who’s doing the right thing in practice and in the game, and that’s who gets to play out there.”
Narduzzi said that’s one area that Coleman needs to improve upon in order to get more playing time going forward.
“It’ll give him more confidence walking in this door [Tuesday] for practice,” Narduzzi said. “He needs to practice at a higher level. Sometimes he doesn’t practice as good, as he’s like, ‘oh, for sure, Coach, I’m a gamer,’ and I’m like, well, you’d better start to be a ‘practicer,’ too. But Therran is a super kid. He’s always got a smile on his face. I’m happy for him because I think it just helps him in his confidence moving forward.”
ODD MAN OUT?
The strong play of the Pinnock and Mathis has created a logjam at corner, even despite the extra body being on the field in the nickel defense. Phillipie Motley didn’t reach his usual snap count and freshmen Paris Ford and Marquis Williams have been limited to spot duty.
That’s not necessarily a problem. Williams has played three of the four games he can play without burning his redshirt year and while Ford is a much-hyped local product, the strong play in front of him makes his lack of playing time a non-issue from Pitt’s perspective.
As for Ford himself, well players that don’t play much typically aren’t made available to the media, but he cryptically tweeted this on Sunday:
Perhaps more surprisingly than his absence on defense has been his absence on special teams or even on offense. Ford excelled as a three-way player in high school and — reportedly — on Pitt’s scout team last year. It’s easy to read between the lines of Narduzzi’s quote regarding Coleman above and apply it to Ford. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem the coaching staff feels he is earning an opportunity.
UP AGAINST IT
The Irish will roll out a star-studded lineup full of national recruits, and there’s plenty of Western Pennsylvania flavor to the Notre Dame roster. Redshirt freshmen offensive lineman Josh Lugg (North Allgheny), sophomore defensive tackle Kurt Hinish (Central Catholic) and freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland) represent one of the biggest hauls out of the WPIAL over the last three seasons. They’ll be joined in 2019 by offensive lineman Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland) and the WPIAL alumni meetings in South Bend would have been bigger if not for an injury to linebacker David Adams (Central Catholic).
The five players over the last three WPIAL classes recruited by Notre Dame is more than any team other than Pitt, who grabbed nine commits in that time frame. West Virginia had four. Penn State had three.
But not all commits are created equally. Of the 10 consensus four-star players in the last three classes, Notre Dame has four and Penn State three. Pitt, West Virginia and Michigan each have one. Notre Dame is probably also the front-runner for four-star 2020 TE/DE Michael Carmody (Mars), the top rated WPIAL 2020 player and one of two current four-star players in that class. Carmody’s brother Robby will play basketball for Notre Dame starting this fall and was one of the biggest basketball recruits to come out of the area this decade.
“I think they walk into high schools, they get what they want,” Narduzzi said. “Let’s put it that way. You know, they’ve got a beautiful place to sell, and it’s a great product and kids love it. So I mean, they walk into a high school, it’s — I don’t want to say it’s easy because nothing is easy, but it’s easy to recruit, and they get some players.”
NO SCENIC ROUTE
With a sellout crowd of over 77,000 expected on Saturday, it’s likely the trip to South Bend will be the biggest crowd the Panthers will play in front of all season.
The crowd should make for a decisive home-field advantage for the Irish, at least in theory, but Narduzzi isn’t exactly buying in to that idea.
“It’s a business trip,” he said. “We’re going to stay in the hotel, we’re going to get them up in the morning, we’re going to drive our bus to the stadium, we’re going to get out, we’re going to go through some cement walls to a locker room, and we’re going to put our gear on and we’re going to go out and go.
“I don’t know if there’s a difference. It’s all about the football game. We’re not going to go to the Basilica or go see Touchdown Jesus. We’re not taking any tours. We’re going to play a football game.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Pitt running back Qadree Ollison and defensive back Damar Hamlin were named ACC player of the week at their respective positions. … Pinnock is listed as an co-starter at field corner with Phillipie Motley this week. He had been second string at that position. … Walk-on freshman Jack Hansberry (Upper St. Clair) is now officially listed as the backup long snapper, a role he’s been serving in all season.