Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi struck a deal with his offensive linemen earlier this season, thinking it would be improbable for them to keep up their end of the bargain.
“These knuckleheads,” Narduzzi said of his guys in the trenches earlier this week. “They say, ‘Coach, if we rush for 500 yards, can we stay in the penthouse so we can all stay in the same room together?’
“I’m like, you rush for 500 yards, you can do it.”
Pitt’s big fellas up front cleared enough open spaces last week against Virginia Tech to nearly accomplish that feat. Had Narduzzi given Qadree Ollison another carry on the last play of the game instead of kneeling the ball, the fourth-year head coach might have spent some time on Expedia this week, booking a large room in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Panthers finished with 492 rushing yards last week in a lopsided 52-22 win over the Hokies. It was the fourth time this season that the Panthers topped at least 250 yards on the ground and the second time the unit had tallied more than 480 yards.
Pitt is looking to win its fourth straight game on Saturday and the path to victory will likely go through the lanes that the offensive linemen create for the Panthers’ ball carriers. In a noon contest at BB&T Field, the Panthers will face the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and their 103rd ranked rushing defense. If everything goes as planned for Pitt, the Panthers could have another big rushing day.
“They’re just clicking on all cylinders right now,” Wake head coach Dave Clawson said of Pitt’s rushing attack. “They’re extremely difficult to get ready for, with all of their unbalanced and shifts and formations and speed sweeps.”
Pitt has the 10th best rushing offense in all of FBS heading into this weekend. The Panthers have entered opposing end-zones 26 times and are averaging 6.49 positive yards every time they run the football.
“I think (Pitt has) really found their identity in terms of what they want to be,” Clawson said. “And they’re very much a blue-collar, hard-nosed, tough football team. And I think their offensive style represents that.”
While Pitt’s offense might have an identity, Wake’s defense does not. The Demon Deacons’ defenders have been awfully inconsistent this season.
In four of its five losses, Wake allowed at least 220 yards rushing. Against Clemson, it allowed 471 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The Demon Deacons are allowing an average of 203.6 rushing yards per-game and opposing runners have entered the Wake end-zone 27 times. Only have Hawaii, South Alabama, Oregon State, UCLA, UMass, New Mexico State, Louisville, Bowling Green, UConn and Kent State allowed more rushing touchdowns this season.
Wake is also the team that woeful Louisville scored its most points against. While the Demon Deacons won that game, they allowed the 2-8 Cardinals to put 35 points on the scoreboard.
But again, Wake’s defense isn’t all bad, it’s just inconsistent. If it’s performance against Louisville was a Hyde game, then Wake’s game against N.C. State last week was a Jekyll one. The Demon Deacons went into Raleigh and beat the then-ranked No. 14 Wolfpack 27-23 and held them to 47 rushing yards on 27 carries, a 1.7 yard-per-carry average.
“Well, we did some things that we really haven’t done all year and we got lined up correctly,” Clawson said of the win against N.C. State. “You’re never going to be perfect, but for the most part, we got aligned. We defended the run and we did not allow explosive plays.”
The longest rush of the day for a Wolfpack back was a 19-yard gain. Aside from that breakaway, Wake had N.C. State’s rushing attack bottled up. Many times, the Demon Deacons stopped Wolfpack ball carriers before they met the line of scrimmage as they tallied up 11 tackles for losses.
For Saturday’s matchup, both Narduzzi and Clawson know what to expect out of each other.
“I think (the Wake) defense played with a lot of emotion,” Narduzzi said. “They’re going to load the box up and we know it. And we like to run the ball and it really doesn’t matter. We’re going to try to continue to pound it and make adjustments as the game goes on and try to get our backs loose and get our linemen and fullbacks and tight ends and receivers, for that matter, get a hat on a hat and make some plays.”
Said Clawson: “Pitt comes in with no pretenses about what they want to be. I mean, they’re going to line up with a fullback, they’re going to line up with tight ends. They run some spread stuff. But they’re primarily a downhill football team. And so, you’re not going to hold them to 40 yards. I mean, it’s just not going to happen.”
Like Clawson said, stopping Pitt won’t be easy. And they’re likely isn’t a recipe for the Demon Deacons to completely stop the Panthers’ rushing attack.
Still, Wake’s defense will be up for the task. With a 5-5 record, this is a football team battling for pride and a trip to a bowl. It’s also senior day and their last home contest of the season. Count Senior defensive lineman Willie Yarbary among those who won’t back down from the Panthers, or those offensive linemen looking to secure their penthouse suite on their next road trip.
“They are very explosive in the run game, so we will have to get (tackles for losses) again. They have big powerful backs that we will have to get on the ground,” said Yarbary, a 285-pound captain who has seven TFLs this year. “The most challenging thing will be to stop the rushing offense. I like the challenge. I’m just embracing it. I think the rest of the defense is up for the challenge.”