I’ll admit I didn’t even know who CJ Donaldson was when he ripped off a 44-yard gain against Pitt on 3rd-and-1 early in the second quarter of last season’s Backyard Brawl.
He was listed as No. 40, but he was wearing No. 12. A quick look at the roster sheet showed he was a true freshman tight end from Coral Gables, Florida. Huh. Weird. Okay, probably won’t happen again. Instead, he proceeded to rack up 125 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries.
It was part of a 190-yard rushing effort from West Virginia — a performance that really pissed off Pat Narduzzi and the Pitt defense.
“We can’t let what happened Saturday happen again defensively,” Narduzzi said Monday. “We’ve got to come out — it doesn’t matter what they throw at you. We’ve got to react the right way. We’ve seen a lot of different stuff through camp, and we’ll show them a bunch of different stuff this week and try to prepare as well as we can without knowing exactly how they want to attack us with coach Brown making the calls.”
Pitt’s efforts stopping the run against Cincinnati last week weren’t exactly what Narduzzi wanted either, giving up 216 yards and a touchdown on 42 carries, but it was a performance that can be likened to last season’s West Virginia game.
It wasn’t the season opener, but it basically was. And it was an opportunity that allowed the Pitt coaching staff to see just how much needs to be fixed in pursuit of stopping opposing running backs. There have already been positive signs, too.
The run defense clamped down in the second half, allowing just 36 yards — a stark contrast to the 180 first half yards. The corrections have been ongoing all week.
“I would say we do what we do, so we know when there are problems — disappointing that we had the problems,” Randy Bates said Tuesday. “But once we figured out what they were, we got them to adjust, the kids adjusted and we got the problems solved for the most part. We misfit a few times more than anything.”
It comes down to communication across the defense, holding those run fits and not playing outside one’s responsibilities on any individual play-call and simply executing. The defense has to be in the position to make the tackle, but good positioning doesn’t always ensure a tackle will be made either.
Bates, still, is confident that the little mistakes against Cincinnati will be cleaned up ahead of this weekend.
West Virginia is a run-first offense, led by a dual-threat quarterback who operates an RPO-heavy offense, and if Pitt is able to force WVU’s Garrett Greene to use his arm to win the game, that’s a recipe for success. But it’s easier said than done when it comes to stopping a deep running backs stable in WVU.
“If you remember me talking after last year’s game, it wasn’t that we were that bad,” Narduzzi said on Thursday. “It was just coming out of camp and doing it. And coming out of Wofford, we really didn’t know. We could play slow and maybe still stop them. So, I think that’s part of it. They’ll be licking their chops based on the way they ran it and what they saw last weekend, so it will be a great challenge for our defense.”
Donaldson is the headliner, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound bruiser, but the trio of Jaylen Anderson, Justin Johnson Jr. and DJ Oliver will also be in the game plan.
There’s been a small sample size this season, just 29 carries against Penn State and Duquesne for 134 yards and a touchdown, but he’s the sort of mauling running that’s hard to bring down. In just 134 career snaps, he’s run the ball 116 times for 660 yards and nine touchdowns.
It’s Donaldson’s yards after contact that define his game, 460 of his career yards coming after the carry (just under four yards after contact per attempt), and he’s generated 18 missed tackles in the process. But he’s capable of hitting that second gear, hitting 17 runs of at least 10 yards and eight runs of at least 15 yards.
White, a true freshman from York, Pennsylvania, is the second-leading rusher this season, but most of that came in his college debut against Duquesne. It’s Greene who serves as WVU’s true second threat.
“I think some of it is designed and some of it is he’s a tremendous athlete,” Bates said. “He’s rushed for 110 yards in a game and a half, thrown for a lot and they run him. They don’t just scramble. So, he’s a challenge.”
PFF credits Greene with eight scrambles this season, picking up 81 yards in the process, and he’s elusive with the ball in his hands. He’s averaging 3.6 yards after contact per attempt, and he’s forced six missed tackles. And if he gets going, it’s a good bet he picks up a first down — with nearly half of his carries this season resulting in gains of 10 yards.
In his WVU career, Greene has recorded 91 rushing attempts, and while he’s been more of a scrambler this season, he’s had plenty of work with designed rushes. Of course, it’s also his first season as the starter, so he was used in packages previously that allowed his legs to shine.
He’s certainly still developing as a passer, and at this point, Narduzzi is more dialed in on the opportunities that are opened by Greene using his legs against Pitt.
“Anybody who drops back, you worry about them as passers,” Narduzzi said. “If I had to say which one we have to stop, we better stop his run and his RPOs off of those runs. So, we better be on him. But that ability to run — if you put on a little Greene highlight tape running counter and slipping through tiny, little holes, he’s got great vision for a quarterback. He’s like a running back that’s taking a snap. It’s a wildcat. He’s really, really good.”
It helps both Greene and Donaldson in both passing and rushing opportunities that there’s a big, veteran offensive line in place. Zach Frazier, a preseason All-American center, marshals a line that features veterans in Wyatt Milum and Doug Nester at the tackle spots and Tomas Rimic and Brandon Yates at the guard spots.
“They’ve got 130 some starts,” Narduzzi said. “They’re experienced. They’re older guys. Their tight ends are all back. 87 is a big dude from LSU. A transfer. He’s 6-7, looks like he’s big, athletic. They’ve got their front. They’ve got what they want to run the football. And they ran the football on us last year, so it’s gonna be a great challenge for us, and we’ll find out.”
It’s a big, mauling offensive line leading a mobile quarterback and a handful of capable runners, but Narduzzi is confident in his Pitt defense — if it’s able to do what it’s supposed to.
“It’s really just playing our game,” Narduzzi said. “We have to play with leverage. We have to attack. We have to attack them upfront. We have to get penetration and cause havoc in the backfield. I think that’s the main thing. Our linebackers have to get downhill, and they have to all be on the same key. That’s what’s important about that. Do your job. Everyone has to do their job.”
It could very well come down to whether or not Pitt is able to stop WVU’s rushing attack Saturday night, and after a week of very good practice, Narduzzi, Bates and the entire staff feel confident.