As Pitt rattled off impressive rushing performance after impressive rushing performance this season, it seemed that there would almost never be a time that the Panthers would be unable to rely on the run.
Over the last two weeks of the regular season, though, the Panthers’ high-powered rushing tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall were largely shut down.
Since they combined for 421 yards against Virginia Tech in their final game at Heinz Field on Nov. 10, Hall has 91 yards and Ollison has 80, with each player getting 27 carries in the games against Wake Forest and Miami combined.
If Pitt hopes to upset No. 2 Clemson in the 2018 ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, North Carolina on Saturday, getting the running game back on track will be essential.
Ollison said on Monday that he feels the backs can do a better job of taking what’s being given to them by the defense and eliminating negative plays. Miami had 14 tackles for a loss last week.
“As a running back, pointing the finger, I’ve got to make more plays,” Ollison said. “We have to make more plays in the running game. Every play isn’t going to be blocked perfectly. Having to make guys miss, maybe run over a guy for the tough yards.
“Really just getting back to us, getting back to who we are, and executing, blocking, running our tracks. Really doing the little things right. We haven’t done that the last two weeks, and it’s shown. Just getting back to us, what we do I think is key in establishing that running game again.”
Whatever adjustments Pitt might have wanted to put in for the Hurricanes were likely scuttled by some shuffling on the line. Connor Dintino was moved from left guard to center to replaced Jimmy Morrissey, who was lost for the season with an ankle injury. Redshirt sophomore Bryce Hargrove made his first career start in Dintino’s old spot.”
“It’s different,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It causes some communication problems that we’ll have to fix and make better this coming weekend to have a chance.”
Additionally, Narduzzi though the Hurricanes and Demon Deacons were selling out to stop Pitt’s run-in game.
“They put some extra hats in the box,” he said. “Obviously some good D-lines. Again, Wake Forest put more guys in the box. Miami didn’t put as many guys in the box, but they did some twists and stuff that we hadn’t really seen a whole lot of. They did some different things to maybe confuse our guys up front. You add the confusion with some really talented football players up front for Miami, it was a recipe for a disastrous game there.”
Against Wake Forest, Kenny Pickett and Pitt’s passing offense came alive to overcome the lack of a ground game. Against Miami, Pickett rarely had the time to step and throw, throwing all of Pitt’s offense out of whack.
Pitt will have the opportunity to make some corrections after one go-around in the new line alignment.
“I think you always get your best performance from game one to game two at the beginning of a season,” Narduzzi said. “I think, again, we’re right back to where we are in game one [on the line].”
Even if Pitt is able to make some corrections, a large and imposing road block remains: Clemson’s defensive line.
Across the board, they have defensive end Clelin Ferrel, who has 10.5 sacks this season and is projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick.
At the other end is senior Austin Bryant, who only has 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss and is only projected to be a second-day NFL draft pick.
In between are behemoth tackles Dexter Lawrence (6-foot-4, 350 pounds) and Christian Wilkins (6-foot-3, 312 pounds). Wilkins has 4.5 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss and is expected to be a first or second round pick. Lawrence, a junior, likely will go that high if he chooses to leave school early.
Clemson’s rushing defense is the best in the country at 2.23 yards per carry against. The second-closest team in Michigan State at 2.67. The Tigers’ 43 sacks is tied for second in the country and tops amongst Power Five schools.
Needless to say, it’s a big challenge, but one the Panthers are embracing.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Ollison said. “It’s a great opportunity for our offensive line. It’s a great opportunity for our tight ends to go out there and really show the world, show the country that we’re good up front, as well. They have a great defensive line, as everyone knows. But I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to go out there and put on display what we have, as well, accepting that challenge of playing against such a good front.”