When you think "Pitt football" over the last two seasons, two things should immediately spring to mind: the Panthers' two tight end power running philosophy, and physical defense that keeps games low-scoring. Pat Narduzzi is one of the most well respected defensive minds in college football, and Heinz Field has been a house of horrors for the Hokies (0-4 all-time).
Although, this Pitt football team has a few surprises up their sleeves. The Panthers have scored at least 36 points against every Power 5 opponent they've played this season, due in large part to one of the top offenses in the country. The Panthers generate big plays via the running game. Pitt compliments its ground attack with a controlled west-coast style short passing game and some play-action shots down the field. On any given run action, multiple players could end up with the football. Screens, jet sweeps, tackles as tight ends, and fullback runs all are mixed in with traditional Pitt looks.
Pitt's Offense Keyed By Jet Sweep/Inside Zone Series
Feel good story James Conner (No. 24, RS-JR, 6-2, 235) and his locomotive running style is the straw that stirs the drink. Pitt still runs the power and counter plays that have given the Hokies fits over the last two years, and Bud Foster noted Pitt's offensive line is, "the best that we've seen to date and maybe the best we see all year."
The Panthers' bread and butter series is an inside zone/jet sweep combination that has produced a ton of big runs for wide receiver Quadree Henderson (No. 10, SO, 5-8, 190) as well as Conner.
The Panthers run this series from a variety of offensive sets, and they mix up whether the jet sweep goes to the strong side and the weak side of the formation. Regardless of the formation, there seem to be three consistent elements to the series.
- The slot receiver will start motioning back and forth behind the quarterback before the ball is hiked.
- At the snap, the offensive line will zone block away from jet sweep movement of the slot receiver. The Pitt tailback will run the inside zone in the same direction that the offensive line blocks.
- The slot receiver crosses behind the quarterback before the quarterback meshes with the tailback. If the slot receiver gets the football, on most plays he turns up almost immediately after exiting the tackle box.
However, that is where the consistency ends. On any given snap, the inside zone could go right and the jet sweep go left, or vice versa. The strength of the formation does not key the defense because Pitt will run both plays to both sides.
On this version, James Conner gets the inside zone handoff running to the left side. Pitt has two tight ends on the right side.
Before Conner gets the football, Henderson motions to the weak side (boundary) and then starts to motion back to the strong side (field) before quarterback Nathan Peterman (RS-SR, No. 4, 6-2, 225) takes the snap. Peterman fakes the hand off to Henderson. The two tight ends both zone to the right instead of the left like the rest of the other offensive linemen. Those two players become lead blockers for Henderson if he were to get the football.
North Carolina ultimately commits three defenders who run away from the real ball carrier to defend Henderson. With a numbers advantage at the point of attack, Conner breaks a long run.
North Carolina overcommitted because Henderson's jet sweeps decimated them. Here is the exact same formation and pre-snap motion. This time, Henderson gets the football.
North Carolina's defensive end gets sucked inside on the inside zone, leaving only two defenders outside to account for Henderson and two blockers. Henderson gets to the corner with ease and gains a first down.
Pitt will also run the jet sweep naked (without lead blockers) to the weak-side while running the inside zone behind those two tight ends.
On this play, Pitt lines up in an I-formation and fakes the inside zone to the strong side (field). Henderson gets the ball on the inside jet sweep and before UNC can react, he is around the corner and almost scores a touchdown.
Essentially, Pitt's heavy look forces the defensive front to load the box, but the Panthers negate any numbers disadvantage by driving the defense to allocate bodies to both sides of the field to combat two possible plays. Often enough, defenders try to read the play and as result they play slow. This allows Pitt to get downhill and gnash long runs. Once the defense over commits in the box, Pitt will pop a play-action pass. Often Conner has been the Panthers' best big-play target in the passing game. On this play Peterman fakes the jet sweep and the inside zone, then waggles out and finds Conner wide open in the right flat for a chunk gain.
The Hokies will have to make the Panthers one dimensional without losing gap integrity or outside contain, win at the point of attack (no easy task given that Bud Foster said that Pitt had the best offensive line on the Hokies schedule), and get negative plays to put the Panthers behind the sticks.
Panthers' Pass Coverage Exploitable
The Pitt defense is also a bit of a conundrum. Defensive end Ejuan Price (RS-SR, No. 5, 6-0, 255) has compiled 13.0 TFLs, 9.0 sacks, 9 QB hurries, and 3 forced fumbles on the season. He will likely be the best pass rusher the Hokies face all season. Jordan Whitehead (No. 9, SO, 5-11, 190) is a dynamic run stopper from his strong safety spot. Nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett (No. 6, SR, 6-3, 335) is a matchup nightmare for centers at 335 pounds. LB Matt Galambos (No. 47, SR, 6-2, 245) had a strong game against the Hokies last season (10 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks).
Pitt has only allowed 96.57 yards rushing per game this season, best in the ACC. Despite that impressive statistic, the Panthers are No. 12 in the ACC in scoring defense (31.4 points per game), and dead last in passing yards allowed per game (298.9). The Panthers secondary is a liability that the Hokies can exploit if they can protect Jerod Evans.
North Carolina had most of their success through the air targeting their slot receivers. Pitt plays a ton of man coverage, even with their outside linebackers and safeties on slot guys. Against that coverage, Ryan Switzer got open with ease, especially in the fourth quarter. Whenever North Carolina needed a first down, regardless of the down and distance, the slot guys seemed to be wide open.
Pitt uses leverage man coverage and robbers the safeties much like Foster does at Virginia Tech. On this play, Pitt has outside leverage coverage on the trips receivers. Whitehead (No. 9) is the safety to the boundary side. At the snap, he runs over to the field side. He is supposed to be reading the quarterback's eyes.
For reasons I don't fully understand, Whitehead robbers underneath the wide slot guy, who is running a deep post against the other Pitt safety, Terrish Webb (No. 2, SR, 5-11, 195). Switzer runs a skinny post against outside linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu (No. 23, RS-SO, 6-0, 215). Idowu is playing outside leverage and expecting safety help inside. Whitehead is nowhere to be found. Switzer easily beats the coverage and breaks off a long run after the catch.
Unlike most Virginia Tech-Pitt clashes, I expect this game to be a high scoring affair. Jerod Evans must complete some third down and long passes from the pocket in order to keep the Hokies' defense off the field. Pitt is going to sustain some long drives even if Tech's defense plays well. Any time either defense forces a punt, it will be a huge potential momentum shift in the football game. Third down efficiency for both Virginia Tech's offense and defense will likely dictate the outcome of this extremely important Coastal Division contest.