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Pitt offense geared toward power running

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 6:51 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Tyler Boyd makes a catch against Virginia in the first half on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Virginia Tech defensive end J.R. Collins pressures Pitt quarterback Tom Savage during the first half Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, in Blacksburg, Va.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst has been forced into a delicate balancing act between two facets of his team:

• The deep passing game that looked to be a staple after three games but was largely put on the shelf in the next four.

• An offensive line that just isn't good enough or experienced enough to allow ample time to throw downfield.

Before Pitt traveled to Atlanta for its game Saturday against Georgia Tech — a team whose pass defense is only mediocre — Chryst was asked what happened to the big plays that freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd was creating early in the season.

Good question, actually, because Boyd's yards-per-catch average fell from 19.6 in the first three games to 11.7 in the next four. Even senior wide receiver Devin Street has dropped from 22.7 yards per catch to 14.3.

“The ball's going in different places,” Chryst said. “We're trying to be smart and pick and choose. The deeper the throw, the longer the protection, so you have to balance it.”

Such is the dilemma facing offensive line coach Jim Hueber, who likes games where the plan calls for a heavy dose of handoffs. The run game — not pass blocking — is what his players do best.

“With the two guys we have playing tackle (Adam Bisnowaty and T.J. Clemmings), I'm not sure we're built to go out there and throw it 50 times,” Hueber said.

Which puts Pitt at a disadvantage any time it falls behind in a game. Yes, the Panthers were trailing Old Dominion, 10-0, at the end of the first quarter and went on to win 35-24, but the Monarchs are newcomers to the FBS and don't have the depth or skill players Pitt sees from most of its opponents.

In fact, before Saturday, Old Dominion was the only team Pitt has defeated since Sept. 28.

Pitt tried to get its power running game in gear against Georgia Tech on Saturday night, and will take the same plan into Heinz Field next week against Notre Dame, a team that allowed the Panthers 144 yards on the ground last year.

If the run game is working behind backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner, the pressure on quarterback Tom Savage is diminished, and there are no complaints from coaches about a lack of execution. During the ODU and Navy games, Savage was sacked only three times and completed more than half his passes (31 of 45) after hitting on only 26 of 59 with 15 sacks in the previous two.

Hueber said early success in the run game against Navy helped the cause even though Pitt struggled later after Conner lost a fumble and the Midshipmen seized the lead.

“I think that kept (Navy) looking around the rest of the day,” he said.

But Hueber said the preparation is difficult because Pitt's coaches can't get a solid sense of how a defense plays a power running team. There just aren't enough of them left in college football.

“We're guessing,” he said. “We're trying to figure out where we can find a glimpse of how (opponents) would play people who line up like we do.

“Everybody is in a spread offense. I'm thinking about petitioning Paul to do it (at Pitt).”

Of course, Chryst would sooner line up with 10 players than institute the spread offense that so many teams have embraced.

“I'm only kidding,” Hueber said. “I don't really want to do it.”

Hueber, 65, prefers an offense that tests his players' toughness.

“We're trying to find a way to be tougher than you are,” he said. “Whether we are or we aren't, that's the approach we're taking. Hopefully, it will pay off like it has for us in the past (at Wisconsin). We have had great success doing it this way and teaching it this way.”

Even if it does make it harder to coach.

“That does make it little bit harder because of what we're trying to do,” Hueber said. “Don't get me wrong: We have an idea of what we're doing every time we go out there, but you can get surprised sometimes.”

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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