A football game is usually won or lost as a direct result of the play up front on both sides of the ball. Your quarterback has to be protected, but the opposing quarterback also has to be hauled down and harassed.
It was a formula that Pitt banked upon entering the 2022 season, with a veteran offensive line that featured more depth than any position group on the roster and a defensive line filled with NFL Draft prospects and high-upside youngsters. It hasn’t always been easy early, but that elite depth was on full display over the weekend in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Both Owen Drexel and Gabe Houy, the presumed starters at center and right tackle, respectively, did not play against Western Michigan. Deslin Alexandre, Dayon Hayes and Devin Danielson also did not play against the Broncos, and Habakkuk Baldonado and Nate Temple went down over the course of the game.
It allowed Pitt to roll out some new lineups and get some involvement from some young players who perhaps wouldn’t have been called upon unless a need arose — as it did in Kalamazoo. But it has to continue well into the season, especially into conference play.
“We’ll find out when we get to the ACC as well,” Pat Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Can they maintain it? We certainly have to stay healthy here.
It is (a result of recruiting). Again, it’s not just a one-week thing. We have to keep going, keep progressing, find out where we are here in a few weeks.”
Dave Borbely slid Jake Kradel, the starting right guard, over to center and move Blake Zubovic into Kradel’s old spot directly to Kradel’s right. Carter Warren, Marcus Minor and Matt Goncalves — who has started all three games at right tackle this season in place of Houy — each took every snap at the positions they’ve occupied all season.
It was one of the offensive line’s more consistent performances of the season, but Narduzzi isn’t ready to name it the starting unit going forward.
“We’ll see,” Narduzzi said. “Coach Borbely’s decision. I’m not going to tell him who to play. It’s putting the best guys out there. We know we didn’t have just five starters. We have six, seven, eight starters out there. We’ll see how they play, how they practice.”
Terrence Moore was a candidate to slide into the center vacancy, filing in for Drexel to finish the Tennessee game, and Branson Taylor has played well in his snaps against West Virginia and Tennessee. And according to Narduzzi, the unsung star of the offensive line has been Ryan Jacoby — who took 31 snaps as the inline tight end against WMU with a new jersey number.
“Ryan has been in there all year doing the same thing,” Narduzzi said. “We just changed his number. We got 61 sitting on the sideline. We’ll just see what the game plan is this week as far as personnel goes, what we want to do … Maybe we’ll change his number, I don’t know, he asked for jersey number 1, I said he couldn’t have it. He did actually. He laughed.”
While the offensive line might be Pitt’s deepest unit on the roster, the defensive line isn’t far behind. It’s a very close competition. And while Narduzzi maybe wouldn’t like to have to see his team’s depth so much so early, it has given Pitt an opportunity to see what it has.
“I’ve been impressed with what (the defensive line’s) done,” Narduzzi said. “Like I said, our guys are stepping up. Again, Nate is a great example.
“Bam Brima had a nice day just coming in, playing. There’s a guy that hadn’t played a ton of football but really did a nice job. Certainly worth noting how well he played. Chris Maloney came in and played a little bit. Those are some of the new guys, besides Haba playing three quarters, getting him out of there. Those guys on the D-line.”
Brima played 35% of Pitt’s defensive snaps Saturday, a big jump from the Tennessee game, and Maloney took his first snaps of the season against WMU. John Morgan has stepped into a starting role and thrived to start the season, which has been huge with Alexandre playing a little less than a half of football this season.
And Elliot Donald and Nahki Johnson got their first snaps of the season against WMU in the fourth quarter, just three snaps each, but it’s a sign of their progression. Both Pittsburgh natives have earned a place on the travel roster and played football on the road. There are bigger days ahead.