PITTSBURGH — Literally and figuratively, sacks have been hurting Pitt’s offense.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett took a shot to the face in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game against Syracuse, fumbling the ball and putting Pitt’s eventual win in a good bit of jeopardy.
Pickett was sacked three times against Syracuse last week, and though that might not seem like a huge number, don’t tell that to Pitt’s offensive line and their coach Dave Borbely, because even days letter, the wounds are fresh.
Borbely broke down each of them, with unflinching detail:
“[Tight end] Tyler Sear gave one up and the guy was so wide, he struggled to get out there. That was the first one.
“The one [Right tackle Alex] Bookser gave up was simply a matter of angles. He needed to kick one more time to really hold it square relative to the defender. He didn’t and he gave up a short edge to the quarterback.
“The one [backup guard Bryce] Hargrove gave up was a complete bust which was why, frankly, you didn’t see him back in the game in a scrimmage snap other than in the Wildcat package. Because, I just told him, and he knows this, I’ve already talked with him in front of the group about it, it was too lackadaisical for me. We worked it all week. To give that up on a mental error, was inexcusable to me.
“I don’t stay mad very long. So I got him back in on that rock package. But it’s all about angles and space. The communication piece has been excellent.”
Bookser was responsible for the one that put the ball on the turf, and afterward, he said he “snapped.”
“That was my first strip sack,” He said. “I got to be a tackle for the first time. That was not a lot of fun. I kinda took it on myself a little bit. I didn’t want to be the guy that lost us the game. We really took that personal. We were like, ‘It’s on us right now. It’s on us as an O-line, it’s on us an offense. Let’s go win this game.’”
Pitt did win the game, by calling 16 of 17 rushing plays and putting the ball in the hands of senior running backs Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison. But the Panthers need to find a better way to protect Pickett going forward, as well.
What needs to improve for that to happen? According to head coach Pat Narduzzi, everything.
“It’s play calling. It’s receivers. It’s pass protection. It’s quarterbacks. It’s head coaches not getting it done. So it’s a combination of everything. You can’t put your finger on man, our protection stinks. No, that’s not it. It’s everything, and that’s why we coach and there’s why there’s videotape and that’s why we try to get it all corrected.”
Narduzzi said the whole passing offense hasn’t gotten into sync, and that’s magnified the individual physical or mental mistakes of his offensive linemen.
“Sometimes a guy is going to miss his block, but usually the ball comes out before it happens,” he said. “Then, it’s feeling comfortable with your receivers and trusting your receivers that they run the right splits, the right depth of the routes, getting off a press and being timing-wise in the right spot. …
“So it’s a timing issue, as well, and Kenny is trying to throw it on time, can’t throw it on time because the guys aren’t where they’re supposed to be, and he’s afraid of throwing picks, and I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to throw picks, either. So he doesn’t want to hurt the team, but at the same point, those receivers have got to get open.”
In that regard, Pickett and Narduzzi are on the same page.
“It really goes three ways,” Pickett said. “Timing, number one, by me; second is the receivers, they have to get to their spot; and third is protection. The passing game has a lot of parts that I don’t think a lot of people know about. It’s something that we’ve been working heavily on this week and I think that we’ve improved.”
Last week, it was the speed rush around the edge that was a big problem for the Panthers. This week, Notre Dame brings a big 3-technique defensive tackle in Jerry Tiller, a 6-foot-7, 304-pound tackle that Narduzzi called a “monster.”
“Every team has their own personality,” Borbely said. “Some a perimeter pressure teams. Some are boundary pressure teams like Syracuse was. These guys are boundary and up the middle. We’re going to have to be really good on holding the depth of the pocket.”
Bookser thinks there’s still more to give from this offensive line group.
“If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need practice,” he said. “I’ve still got plenty, plenty to learn. It’s a different world on the outside still. I’ve been playing guard for two years. I’m getting better every week, but definitely a lot to learn still.”