Panthers try to get running game back on track

Pitt running back Isaac Bennett runs over New Mexico's Dallas Bollema (left) and Brandon Branch on his way to a fourth-quarter touchdown Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Pitt running back Isaac Bennett runs over New Mexico's Dallas Bollema (left) and Brandon Branch on his way to a fourth-quarter touchdown Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 6:09 p.m.

No one knows the value of a strong running game better than Pitt coach Paul Chryst.

When he was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin during its record-setting seasons of 2010 and 2011, the Badgers rode to 22 victories and consecutive Big Ten titles on the backs of their backs.

During the first year, Chryst used a three-pronged attack of James White (1,052 yards), John Clay (1,012) and Montee Ball (996), falling 4 yards short of becoming the only FBS team with three players rushing for 1,000. The consolation prize was a Big Ten record-tying total of 48 touchdowns on the ground.

The following season — Chryst's last in Madison — Wisconsin set a school record with 3,298 rushing yards.

The message is clear: If you want to win, you better build a good ground game.

That has been Chryst's mission since he was hired as Pitt coach 22 months ago. He has made a diligent effort to recruit tall, 300-pound linemen while turning a defensive end prospect into the team's best back (freshman James Conner).

But so far the results have been spotty.

“Just not getting it done,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said, speaking of his unit as a whole. “Wasn't good enough, flat out.”

Pitt entered its nonconference game Saturday night against Old Dominion with the 14-team ACC's 12th-ranked running game (116.8 yards per game, 105th among 123 FBS schools).

That's nearly 119 yards per game below the rushing effort that Chryst oversaw at Wisconsin in 2011.

Conner seemed to be following in the tracks left by Pitt's most recent marquee running backs, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. McCoy and Lewis each had two 1,000-yard seasons (2007-2010); Graham settled for one last year after rushing for 958 in an injury-shortened season in 2011. All three players reached the NFL.

But after rushing for 119 and 173 yards in victories against New Mexico and Duke, Conner was held to 27 by Virginia before hurting his shoulder and carrying only twice in the Virginia Tech game last week.

Junior Isaac Bennett, who appeared to be the No. 1 back until Conner arrived this summer, is averaging 42 yards per game.

Rudolph insists Conner and Bennett are competing for playing time, although Conner led in attempts 64-47 through five games.

“There are times he (Bennett) would like to do better,” Rudolph said, “and I'd like him to do better, and there are times he did a great job in the game.”

Bennett did rush for 101 yards and two touchdowns against New Mexico.

The running game fell apart last Saturday against Virginia Tech, even while the Hokies ignored the run in an all-out effort to sack quarterback Tom Savage.

Without the threat of a diverse offense, Savage was at the mercy of the pass rushers, who sacked him eight times.

Because Pitt was behind and suffered 10 negative yardage plays, the running game was inconsequential and ineffective. Pitt called only 19 run plays, offensive line coach Jim Hueber said.

“It's a product of the game,” he said. “When you get behind the sticks and you are trying to stay alive, I think you turn to trying to get big chunks, rather than just knocking it short.”

Trouble ensued even when Pitt did run.

“We had a play blocked great and the back fell down,” Hueber said. “We had another blocked great and the guard fell down.

“We're that guy with the cloud over his head.”

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

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