Pitt notebook: Running game gets boost from Bennett in productive 1st half
Pitt entered its nonconference game against Old Dominion on Saturday night needing to recharge a feeble running game that was ranked 12th in the 14-team ACC.
Mission accomplished, albeit against an opponent that had allowed an average of 201.2 rushing yards through its previous six games.
Junior running back Isaac Bennett rushed 15 times for a career-high 127 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, with some key run-game elements working against him.
Bennett was forced to shoulder the bulk of the workload, with leading rusher James Conner (shoulder) and senior left guard Cory King (back) unable to play. Conner was dressed, but coach Paul Chryst chose not to use him.
King, who was in street clothes on the sideline, missed most of the Pitt practice sessions last week.
What's more, Pitt couldn't generate a strong passing game to complement its ground efforts, with wide receiver Devin Street sitting out the game with a shoulder injury.
Bennett started and gained 31 yards on his first six carries through the first two series. Pitt was forced to punt both times.
But Bennett and the offense picked up the pace in the second quarter — still without any help from Conner — scoring on 25-, 3- and 16-yard runs to give Pitt a 21-10 halftime lead. He finished with 30 carries for 240 yards and three scores.
Heinz Field record
Old Dominion's Jarod Brown's 54-yard field goal in the first quarter was the longest in the 13-year history of Heinz Field, breaking previous 52-yard standards set by Pitt's Kevin Harper on Nov. 5, 2011, against Cincinnati and the Steelers' Jeff Reed on Sept. 12, 2010, against the Atlanta Falcons.
“You'll have that,” Harper said on Twitter. “Great kick.”
The strangest aspect of the record, however, was that Brown had two chances to tie his record in the second quarter, but both 54-yarders were short.
Pitt quarterback recruit Wade Freebeck ran for two touchdowns Friday night to lead St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High School to a 35-0 victory over Cypress Bay. Freebeck also threw for 122 yards. St. Thomas Aquinas (6-1) is the defending state 7A champion.
Quarterback Tom Savage and defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell — all seniors — served as Pitt's co-captains. ... Pitt lost the pregame coin toss and did not start the game on offense for the first time this season. ... Pitt opened the game in a nickel defense, and freshman Titus Howard received his first career start. But the Panthers played much of Old Dominion's first drive, which ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Taylor Heinicke to wide receiver Marquel Thomas, with six defensive backs, including Howard's former Clairton teammate Trenton Coles.
Playing for a cause
The night marked Pitt's second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Game. Prior to kickoff, Pitt held a “pink tailgate” for cancer survivors, some of whom later helped form a tunnel for the team as it entered the field.
— Jerry DiPaola
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