PITTSBURGH – Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple was brought to Pittsburgh to revive a sluggish passing game. He has done just that, as quarterback Kenny Pickett has had a record-setting start to the season with the Panthers’ passing game flourishing. Pitt is second in the nation in total pass attempts at 180 and averaging 280.3 yards per game.
While the passing game has been stellar, a proud Pitt running game has seemed to have fallen by the wayside.
“We’re second in the nation in pass attempts?” head coach Patt Narduzzi asked. “No wonder we’re not running the ball very good. You don’t run it, you can’t get yards.”
Narduzzi is excited about Pitt’s reinvented passing game, but he has been preaching balance on offense since the start of training camp, and they have yet to find that on offense. Pitt is throwing the ball an average of 45 times per game, but only running the ball just over 32 times per contest.
It was never going to be easy for Pitt to replace two 1,000-yard rushers in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Still, the Panthers have struggled more than expected to find consistent success running the football.
Behind Ollison and Hall, Pitt had the 18th-best rushing offense in the nation at 227.9 yards per game last season. The Panthers are averaging half that total through four games at 114.5 yards per game, and a significant portion of that is coming from Pickett on scrambles.
Junior AJ Davis and freshman Vincent Davis have both shown flashes this season, but Pitt has been disappointing overall on the ground.
Prior to Pitt’s win against UCF last week, Whipple felt that the running game was close, but that they were make minor mistakes here and there. He also admitted that his play calling could improve to help it.
“We’ve got to do a better job schematically,” he said. “And I’ve got to call better plays, really.”
With the Delaware Blue Hens visiting Heinz Field this Saturday, Pitt has a perfect opportunity to get the running game going before they get into the thick of ACC play.
The Blue Hens are coming off a game where they allowed Penn to rush for 269 yards. They are also allowing 449.3 total yards per game on defense, 92nd in the FCS. Delaware’s defense is porous, and Pitt should be able to have their way in the running game.
Similar to the passing game, running the football is reliant on rhythm and confidence. By giving the Davis twins opportunities for success early and often, they can gain confidence that can propel them the rest of the season.
In addition, a run-heavy attack on Saturday will also benefit Pickett. Fewer drop backs means fewer opportunities for hits, and he has taken plenty through four games. After temporarily leaving last week’s game with an injury, Pitt should be doing whatever they can to protect their star signal caller. By throwing less and running more, they’ll be able to keep him upright and clean.
With the success Pitt has had through the air thus far, teams will start to counter and there will be less players in the box. Pitt will want a running game that is ready going forward to exploit those situations.
Pitt may not need a great running game at the moment with the way that the passing attack is humming, but there will come a point this season where they will have to turn to their running backs to win them a game. A commitment to the ground attack against Delaware will help ensure that the Panthers will be prepared when that day inevitably comes.