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Making Louisville One-Dimensional Will Be Tall Task for Pitt Defense



Pitt defenders Shayne Simon, David Green and Nick Lapi look on as the Panthers' offense faces Virginia Tech on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Mitchell Northam / Pittsburgh Sports Now.)

When Pat Narduzzi talks about the Pitt rushing attack, or what Pitt has missed at running back this season, to be more precise, he often brings up Izzy Abanikanda.

Louisville’s Jahwar Jordan doesn’t look much like Abanikanda, at least, not if the two were standing side by side, but there’s certainly a similarity in the way the two running backs punish opposing defenses with their running styles.

And Pitt is all too familiar with the way Abanikanda needed just one touch to change the course of a football game.

“(Louisville has) got a tailback who’s explosive,” Narduzzi said Thursday at his weekly press conference. “If you put on their explosive plays, if I put them up on the screen for you here, you’d be like, ‘Wow.’ Give him a crack and he’ll take it. Throw him a T-screen, and he’s taking it 70.

“When you have a guy that can do that… you guys saw what Izzy was last year. Are we a whole bunch different offensively than we were last year? You look at who your MVP was a year later, you look back and go, ‘Who do you miss?’ I miss that speed; I miss that pop through the line of scrimmage.”

Jordan has been one of the most explosive running backs in college football this season, racking up 653 yards and eight touchdowns on just 87 carries — adding 168 yards and another touchdown on just nine receptions.

It hasn’t exactly been Murderer’s Row for the Cardinals this season, but Jordan racked up 96 yards at 13.7 yards a pop against Georgia Tech, 113 yards (and 43 more through the air) against Indiana, 134 yards (and 75 more through the air) against Boston College and his 143 yards and two touchdowns slayed Notre Dame last weekend.

He’s top-10 in rush yards and yards per attempt so far this season — and it’s largely because of that breakaway ability.

Jordan has racked up 331 yards after contact this season, showing the ability to pinball off of would-be tacklers for a few extra yards at a solid clip, but he’s a one-cut kind of player. He has 13 carries of at least 10 yards this season, but 11 of those have gone for at least 15 yards — among the best in college football.

Simply put, when Jordan takes a handoff, a pitch, whatever, he’s a threat to at least pick up a first down. Usually much more. All but two of his nine touchdowns have been from at least 20 yards out.

  • 74-yard rushing touchdown against Georgia Tech
  • 72-yard rushing touchdown against Murray State
  • 1-yard rushing touchdown against Murray State
  • 25-yard rushing touchdown against Indiana
  • 22-yard rushing touchdown against Boston College
  • 2-yard rushing touchdown against Boston College
  • 75-yard receiving touchdown against Boston College
  • 45-yard rushing touchdown against Notre Dame
  • 21-yard rushing touchdown against Notre Dame

That’s just about 41% of his offensive production, all of his touchdowns, of course, on just over 9% of his touches. That’s pretty explosive. And the Pitt defense hasn’t exactly stifled explosive plays this season either.

Jordan has racked up just 53 yards on 18 carries in two career meetings against Pitt, once with Syracuse in 2020 and once with Louisville in 2022, and Narduzzi expects to see a heavy dose of Jordan — and maybe not so much of an option offense.

“They’ll run a little bit of option at times, but we’ll see if they like the option against us,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a little speed option, just a way to get (Jordan) the ball in space on the edge. But we’re defending 10 guys as opposed to — we have to defend 11 in the passing game, but in the run game, we’re facing 10 this week, I hope. As a matter of fact, I don’t hope. I hope it’s 11. If they want to run with him, we’re fine with that.”

Let’s address both of Narduzzi’s points here.

Yes, Jordan has been excellent in bouncing runs outside (25 carries for 214 yards and two touchdowns on runs around either end), but he’s been pretty darn effective in just about every phase — running up the middle, off the guards, off the tackles, out in space, whatever. He’s averaging nearly eight yards a carry. And that’s no coincidence.

And to the other point, Cards’ quarterback Jack Plummer has not had many designed rush attempts this season. In fact, most — just about all — of his rush attempts come in the form of scrambles. He’s not a statue, but he’s also not Malik Cunningham either. But he is throwing the ball very well.

“It’s a balance,” Narduzzi said Monday at his weekly news conference. “You’ve got to play both. They’re having success in the run game and the passing game. So, it is a lot more balanced. However, you look at Virginia Tech, and they averaged almost 12 yards per pass and 3.4 yards per run. It looked like it was the opposite, but it wasn’t.”

Pitt entered a week of serious self-scouting, and a bit of soul searching at that, as the Hokies wore Pitt down on the ground over the course of four quarters and connected on big plays through the air to leave the Panthers scrambling. VT, despite entering with a bottom-tier offense in the ACC, had its way with Pitt offensively.

“You go back to the Virginia Tech game, and we’re on the field for almost 40 minutes — had 59 rushes,” Narduzzi said. “Our goal is to hold people to 3.3 yards per carry. We held them to 3.4 yards. It felt like it was 10.8 yards per carry because you felt like you’re out there all day, and you couldn’t stop that little toss counter read.

“They’re playing with a wildcat quarterback, (Kyron) Drones, so you look at the balance there. But then he was able to hit three passes on us, which was disappointing. Got a little push-off, and we’re looking back for the ball too early, almost ten yards. We’re looking back for the ball and get nudged off, perfect pass. We gave up two other big passes in that game. So we’ve got to be better on defense stopping the run.”

It may have been unconventional, and the Pitt offense didn’t help with short drive after short drive, but the Pitt defense wasn’t able to get off the field as missed tackles — 26 of them, to be precise — extended drives.

Jordan isn’t the type of running back — at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds — to carry the ball 10 times a drive and wear down a defense. He’s the kind of running back to take a handoff, make a single cut and burst through a small gap for a 50-yard gain. That’s the task Pitt will have in stopping his rushing style, but the defensive ends, the linebackers and the safeties cannot miss when given the chance to wrap him up for a short gain.

Those missed tackles were a major, major problem against the Hokies.

“There are several tackles that would’ve made the game Saturday quite different, so we’ve had time to practice and we’ve got some guys who are continuing to get better, and that’s the objective of the bye week,” Randy Bates said after practice Wednesday.

But, in my opinion, the biggest area where Pitt failed against VT was in limiting those explosives through the air. VT’s Bhaysul Tuten racked up 109 yards on 24 carries, with a long of 26 yards, but the Panthers otherwise limited the ground attack.

Drones connected on just 12 passes against Pitt, but one was a 54-yard touchdown pass to Da’Quan Felton and the other was a 53-yard touchdown pass to Jaylin Lane. Those cannot happen again.

Plummer has been very effective for Louisville this season, completing 103-of-156 pass attempts (66%) for 1,551 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. And he’s done all that with 10 drops from his wide receivers.

Like most quarterbacks, he’s pretty cool with a clean pocket (and he’s only been under pressure on about 33% of his 61 dropbacks this season), and he’s utilized a steady dose of deep balls — completing 14-of-31 pass attempts over 20 yards for 569 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions.

And Jamari Thrash, a 6-foot, 180-pound grad transfer from Georgia State, has been one of the best wide receivers in the ACC so far this season, racking up 30 receptions for 519 yards (17.3 yards per reception) and six touchdowns.

“The receivers are physical, they make plays, they’re quick, they get out of their breaks well,” Narduzzi said. “Again, they will block you. I’m impressed with their toughness. I think Brohm does a great job scheming you up, but they’re a talented football team, for sure.”

It’s a talented Louisville offense, one that is fourth in scoring (36.3 points per game), third in total offense (467.3 yards per game), fourth in passing offense (275 passing yards per game) and fourth in rushing offense (192.3 rushing yards per game) in the ACC, and it’s certainly one of the best Pitt has — and likely will — face this season.

“They run the ball very well,” Bates said. “I don’t know if they’re leading the league, but they certainly are close if they’re not. They’ve got two good running backs who carry the ball well, and then they throw it well and coordinate that well. It’s a good offense.”

“They play fast. It’s hard to see it just on tape, but North Carolina was pretty fast,” Narduzzi said. “So, I wouldn’t say they’re faster than North Carolina. But you don’t know until you see it live.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Acrisure Stadium Saturday night, and if there’s one unknown, it’s how the weather (with the chance of rain all night) will impact the matchup. But with a strong passing and rushing attack, it’s a very good bet the Cardinals will be ready for whatever the forecast predicts.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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