The offensive line was supposed to be the foundation for a coming-out party. Pitt was supposed to run all over West Virginia and establish new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti’s new offense in grand fashion.
It just wasn’t the case against WVU. The offensive line was pushed to the limit by the WVU pass rush, the standard that had been set through seasons of work wasn’t met and yet Pitt won. It wasn’t pretty, wasn’t exactly a good game, but offensive line coach Dave Borbely didn’t really need to let his veteran unit know the standard wasn’t met.
“I think they got the message loud and clear,” Borbely said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “They know when they haven’t played well, and we had some guys perform individually OK, but we’ve gotta perform as a unit. I think they were disappointed. I think the psychology of results is always a factor. What to say to them, if you played well but lost, if you played poorly and won, which was certainly the case.”
Kedon Slovis certainly held onto the football too long at points during the Backyard Brawl on Thursday, but he also wasn’t given the cleanest pocket to operate from at times either. WVU’s Dante Stills wreaked havoc in Pitt’s backfield, hauling down Slovis a time and a half to help grow WVU’s total of five sacks, despite a heavy emphasis upon stopping the preseason All-American.
Borbely credited WVU as a whole, lauding not just Stills but WVU’s entire defensive unit, but he also felt like Pitt’s offensive line didn’t reach the standard that’s been set. And he let the entire unit know. Slovis was poorly protected, the run game was inconsistent — especially outside of Rodney Hammond Jr. — and he wasn’t pleased.
The top priority going forward into a crucial Top 25 matchup against Tennessee is providing Slovis with increased protection, which, to his unit’s credit, did peak against WVU on the game-tying 92-yard drive in the fourth quarter. However, WVU’s defense was able to capitalize on simple twists and linebacker pressures, and Pitt did not handle it well. It all comes back to the basic fundamentals — which Borbely is emphasizing this week.
Pat Narduzzi praised the WVU defensive front himself, noting how his squad did a poor job adjusting to the way WVU stuffed the box, but he also was disappointed in the overall performance blocking upfront.
“Again, was disappointed in the offensive line and their play, so maybe they had fat heads,” Narduzzi said. “Maybe they were thinking about how good they were, and we’re all coming back and we’re going to be great. But they weren’t. That’s flat what it is.
“They should have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder this week to come back and show who they really are.”
When Pitt regrouped Sunday, with the offensive line room sitting down together and Borbely playing the tape from the Backyard Brawl, he once again expressed to his unit that the standard wasn’t met. It wasn’t even close. But enough with the bad news.
“The good news is we have a lot of resolve and a lot of toughness,” Borbely said. “They’re able to survive. We talk about the momentum swings all the time because every football game’s the same, you’re up, they’re down. All the sudden they’re up, you’re down. I think one thing I told them going into the game, one thing we have now is a battled-hardened, tested group.”
Pitt practiced hard with Tennessee ahead on the schedule, and Borbely felt like it was an excellent day from his unit. However, those days in practice don’t always translate. The veterans know it. However, it is a very, very veteran unit.
Carter Warren, Marcus Minor and Owen Drexel played every snap Thursday night, to mixed results, but it secured the left side of the offensive line. The right side of the line featured much heavier rotation. With Gabe Houy out, Matt Goncalves made the start at right tackle. And Jake Kradel and Blake Zubovic — to an extent — shared time at right guard. Ryan Jacoby also saw a lot of time as an extra lineman.
There was an expectation that there would be a heavier dose of rotation along the offensive line this season, and even after a game, Borbely still isn’t exactly sure how it’ll go week by week. But it’s clear Branson Taylor has carved out a spot going forward.
“It depends on the game, and I told them going into the game, ‘I’m not sure how the rotation is going to go.’ I said I’ve gotta feel it out and see what the flow of the game is,” Borbely said. “Throughout the game, I felt like the starters — nobody was gassed. That’s a real tribute to coach Stac and his staff, and guys were operating at a fairly high level.”
Taylor only played seven snaps, but all seven came at right tackle on Pitt’s game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. Narduzzi felt like Taylor probably should’ve been inserted into the lineup sooner, and Borbely agreed. It makes sense considering Taylor emerged in a key moment, stepping up to provide above-average pass blocking.
“I thought (Taylor) did really well,” Borbely said. “He played seven total snaps and finished the game on the drive that we went down the field to score on, and I probably should’ve played him a little earlier than I did.”
There are options, to say the least. The offensive line room is the deepest on the roster. There’s an entire starting unit, once Houy is fully healthy, an entire second unit that could’ve started this season and a handful of guys in the room who could slot into the rotation. And while there needs to be a bounce back, of course, it’s not as if there’s an easier FCS opponent up next.
It’s an experienced, veteran Tennessee defensive front that could be the toughest unit that Pitt faces this season. The need for improvement after the WVU game was apparent, but there’s truly no time to wait.
“I think they have the biggest, strongest, fastest defensive front that we faced probably since Clemson, so that’s the challenge,” Borbely said.