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Pitt looks for O-line consistency to provide boost to ground game

Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 10:27 p.m.
Pitt running back James Conner tries to get past Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back James Conner tries to get past Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Pitt running back James Conner is tackled by Navy's Cody Peterson in the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Annapolis, Md.
Paul W. Gillespie | The (Annapolis) Capital
Pitt running back James Conner is tackled by Navy's Cody Peterson in the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Annapolis, Md.

Pitt offensive line coach Jim Hueber said goals he sets for his players go beyond trying to prove critics wrong.

When Hueber was asked whether his linemen played with a chip on their shoulders in the victory against Notre Dame, he protested. Hueber said revenge isn't a motive.

“I want them to play with a little bit of an edge,” he said, alluding to the controlled anger that often sets athletes apart. “I don't know if you get anything out of trying to get retribution or revenge.

“The point you need to prove is if I do it right, it's going to work. If I do it right a lot of times, we are going to be successful.”

The inexperienced line has been hampered by back injuries to tackle Adam Bisnowaty, who missed the Georgia Tech game two weeks ago but returned for Notre Dame, and guard Cory King, out for the past four.

Getting the line to work cohesively and violently — a combination good lines manage to achieve — has been difficult.

“We want them to play with an edge where we feel we can attack people and get something done,” Hueber said. “I thought they did Saturday night (against Notre Dame). I thought there were flashes of that.

“Consistently, we are still not where we need to be.”Lost in the Notre Dame celebration was the per-attempt averages of running backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner (3.4 and 3.5, respectively). Conner scored twice on short, tough runs, but the longest of the game was 11 yards by Bennett. In fact, neither Bennett nor Conner have had a run longer than 12 yards in six of Pitt's nine games.

As a result, Pitt is averaging only 3.5 yards per rush (11th in the ACC) and 121.3 per game (12th). Help could be on the way Saturday when Pitt faces North Carolina, which has the weakest run defense in the conference (194 yards per game).

But there are other hopeful signs.

Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said his unit wasn't perfect, but his two favorite plays were 5- and 6-yard gains by Bennett late in the fourth quarter when Pitt was trying to preserve the lead by keeping the ball out of Irish hands.

“Being able to get a first down at the end to finish it out, I think they grew a little bit from that game,” he said.

Another good sign is coach Paul Chryst's belief that Conner is fully recovered — mentally and physically — after fighting through a shoulder injury. Conner has been limited to a total of 94 yards in the past six games.

“The first game back, you are always a little bit, ‘It feels OK, but where am I at with it?' ” Chryst said. “Certainly now it seems to be full health. He's pretty good.”

Center Artie Rowell said Conner should reassert the toughness that made him one of the top backs in the ACC early in the season.

“I think his game is being a strong running back and hitting holes,” he said. “There may have been a week or two where he got away from maybe trying to create things on his own.

“My opinion is he needs to find a hole and just hit it. With him, he's going to run people over. Four (yards) might turn into eight, which might turn into 12.”

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

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