Welcome to the PSN Film Study. In this space, we’ll break down some of the big plays and tactical mismatches from each Pitt football game.
If you’re new here, I tend to build onto concepts I’ve already explained in the past at times, so if you feel like you’re missing something, the archive is a good place to check.
Getting into a situation where a football team needs one yard in order to convert a first down or score a touchdown on third down is generally perceived to be among the best possible situations.
In theory, the farther the distance for a conversion or a score, the more difficult it should be in order for the offense to succeed. That’s why coaches spend a lot of time talking about staying in “third and manageable” and not letting opposing defenses pigeonhole them into spots where they almost need to pass in order to convert.
Then there’s Pitt, which on Saturday against NC State, treated situations with one-yard to go with significant trepidation.
The Panthers had 12 plays where it was either 3rd and 1, 4th and 1, or a goal-to-go situation from the 1-yard line. Only four times out of those 12 was Pitt able to pick up the one yard. For comparison, Kentucky leads the nation in overall third-down conversion percentage, converting 60% of the time so far this season. Pitt converted one yard just 33% of the times they needed to against the Wolfpack.
So what went wrong when Pitt needed a yard? Let’s look at the film
Here’s a zone run in the first quarter, where Pitt went shotgun and tried to spread NC State out and slip Vincent Davis through the left side. But Pitt’s offensive line gets absolutely zero push, as the Wolfpack defenders are able to re-set the line of scrimmage two yards in Pitt’s backfield. Carson Van Lynn, who started at right tackle in place of the banged up Gabe Houy, can’t keep his man from crashing down and there’s just no hole for Davis to move into the space vacated by right guard Jake Kradel. It’s not as if Davis made a bad read, either. Jimmy Morrissey was having just as much trouble with his man. There’s just nowhere to run.
This time, Pitt goes with a similar formation and decides to go with a quick pass, after NC State had smothered the line of scrimmage, seemingly un-fooled by Pitt’s pre-snap look of a spread attack. Here, Kenny Pickett has multiple open looks, and chooses to go to Taysir Mack on a slant. Jordan Addison might have been more open, but with the pressure of a blitz coming, Pickett had to make a quick read and the defender over Mack’s back made a nice play.
For the third time in a row, Pitt approaches a 3rd and 1 with a shotgun, single-back look with Davis in the backfield, and for the third time in a row, they failed to convert. This call is a read option, and Pickett just reads it wrong. Davis had enough room on the left side of Pitt’s unbalanced line between pulling guards Kradel and Bryce Hargrove to pick up the necessary yards. Instead, Pickett lost three after Morrissey was beaten, giving Pickett no room to out-maneuver the crashing linebacker.
After an 0-for-3 start, Mark Whipple changed things up, going with a pistol look, with fullback Jake Zilinskas leading the way for Davis. Zilinskas threw a great block at the point of attack and Warren won his individual battle, sealing a large hole for Davis. First down.
The goal line has entered the chat. And not in a good way for Pitt. We’re back to the shotgun spread. We’re also back to NC State not being fooled into thinking it might be a pass play and wrecking the line of scrimmage. Davis has nowhere to go in the designed hole, and there’s a free-running linebacker in his cut-back lane. He might have had a better chance bouncing this outside, but that’s not what he’s being asked to do here. Pitt just got wrecked at the point of attack.
Now Pitt goes to a heavy package, with Zilinskas ahead of Daniel Carter. Once again, demolition of the Pitt offensive line. There’s no hole. Only one player even finishes the play still on the line of scrimmage. Carter either got re-injured or suffered a new injury on this play. Unmitigated disaster.
Still the heavy package, this time with Davis, and it’s a bootleg. Shocking that no one really got open with that personnel on the field. Grant Carrigan actually is open, but he was not lined up in an eligible position.
Pitt goes back to power, this time with one wide receiver in the formation, and again goes to Davis, who is trying to run behind Zilinskas and Carter Warren, both of whom were completely overwhelmed by the NC State line. This kind of power running is not Davis’ strength, but Jerome Bettis in his prime would have been tackled for a loss here.
The second trip to the goal line, Pitt goes with Pickett charging ahead, and it works wonderfully. Great job by the interior line.
From here on out, it was a whole lot of Pickett, and most of it worked.
This one got stuffed short of the line, but Pitt still got a good push.
Zilinskas gets the push here and a nice job with the second effort for Pickett.
The quarterback sneak seems to be something that Pitt is good at. Pickett is a tough quarterback and Pitt’s line got solid push. So it seems that there may be answer as to what works. There’s also an answer to what doesn’t works. Running out of the shotgun on 3rd and 1, at least with Davis at running back, probably needs to go away forever.