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Pitt notebook: Running game withering for Panthers

| Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 4:51 p.m.
Pitt quarterback Tom Savage is sacked by Virginia Tech defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins during the first half Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, in Blacksburg, Va.

Nearly halfway through the season, Pitt coach Paul Chryst finds his team in a difficult situation that won't be easy to overcome.

Yes, Pitt is 3-2, but those numbers are not nearly as meaningful as these: 21 and 64. Those two are hurtful.

The first is the number of times quarterback Tom Savage has been sacked. The second is the total yards gained by Pitt's two best running backs — James Conner and Isaac Bennett — in the past two games.

Do the math: Pitt is allowing an average of more than four sacks per game. If that keeps up, Savage will need help to the team bus.

The running game? Conner, who aggravated a shoulder injury in the 19-9 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday, has averaged 14 yards per game the past two games. Bennett is getting 18.

“We have to certainly protect better,” Chryst said, “and it starts with running so we don't become one-dimensional.”

With few holes opening for the backs, Virginia Tech's pass rushers paid little attention to the Pitt run game and took aim at Savage, who was sacked eight times.

Chryst has few options in terms of personnel.

Dorian Johnson could help at tackle, but he is only a freshman. Ryan Schlieper has starting experience at guard, but he also is the backup center after injuries to Gabe Roberts and Shane Johnson.

The answer may emerge in a change in offensive philosophy.

Some possibilities:

• Shorter routes for speedy wide receivers Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, who might be able to make linebackers miss before getting to the secondary.

• Quicker releases by Savage, who is holding on to the football too long, according to Chryst. He might be a victim of his success, always looking for the big pass play after throwing for 861 yards in the first three games. “I think we have to take a look at that, certainly,” Chryst said. “You are kind of waiting for that space (between defenders and receivers).”

• More throws toward the four young tight ends, who have combined for only 12 receptions in five games. Sophomore J.P. Holtz has only two for 18 yards — none in the past two games — after catching 10 for 120 and two touchdowns over the final five games last season.

“We have to look at it all,” Chryst said.

Next up

Pitt, which is in third place in the seven-team Coastal Division of the ACC, takes a long break from conference play, playing Old Dominion on Saturday, followed by Navy. Four of the final five games are against conference opponents Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Syracuse and Miami. The final nonconference game is versus Notre Dame on Nov. 9.

Turnover tale

Savage has managed to avoid interceptions in two of the past three games. Virginia Tech ended its 10-game streak of picking off at least one pass.

On the flip side, Pitt's defense hasn't created a turnover since linebacker Anthony Gonzalez's interception return for a touchdown Sept. 21 against Duke.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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