Alex Bookser and his band of blockers give Pitt punch on the ground
Pitt senior offensive tackle Alex Bookser wasn’t mad at anyone else, just himself.
He had allowed a strip sack of quarterback Kenny Pickett on Saturday, leading to a fumble that Syracuse recovered with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. Retreating to the Pitt sideline, Bookser’s teammates saw what appeared to be their co-captain talking to himself.
He doesn’t make a habit of it, but this time it had a purpose and a result.
“I snapped on myself and people were looking around, saw me talking to myself and they said, 'Well, (we) gotta go.’
“It was my first strip sack. I took it on myself a little bit. I don’t want to be the guy that lost us the game. (He told teammates), 'It’s on us as an O-line, it’s on us as an offense, let’s go win this game.’ ”
And so they did. After Syracuse scored to take a seven-point lead, Pitt ran the ball on 17 of 18 snaps to record a touchdown and a field goal and force an overtime period that led to a Pitt victory.
The coaching staff put the game on the shoulders of running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, fullback George Aston and the offensive linemen, led by first-year line coachDave Borbely. Don’t underestimate Aston’s contributions. He has only 12 receptions and one carry, but Borbely likes having him lead the way on running plays.
“He’s the best fullback I’ve been around,” said Borbely, who’s coached college football since 1981. “He was killing those (Syracuse) guys. He blew 94 (defensive end Alton Robinson) up. I felt bad for him.”
Borbely’s chief responsibility is the offensive linemen, and his lessons are starting to take hold.
“The biggest challenge,” he said, “has been adapting to new techniques, new terminology. It was all brand new for them. It takes a while to get that into your DNA and get it internalized. I think we’re doing a pretty good with it right now.
“Blocking is about space and angles and they’re starting to understand that. That was kind of a foreign concept to them when I got here.”
Pickett was sacked two other times Saturday, and Borbely knew precisely what happened on all three.
“(Tight end) Tyler Sear gave one up, the (pass rusher) was so wide he struggled to get out there,” Borbely said.
“The one that Bookser gave up was simply a matter of angles. He needed to kick one more time to really hold his square relative to the defender and he didn’t, and he gave up a short edge to the quarterback.”
Borbely could excuse those two; he said there was no excuse for the third, given up by backup lineman Bryce Hargrove.
“The one Hargrove gave up was just a complete bust, which is why, frankly, you didn’t see him back (in the game), other than in the wildcat package,” Borbely said. “I talked to him in front of the group about it. It was too lackadaisical for me.
“We’d worked it all week, to give that up on a mental error was inexcusable to me. But I don’t stay mad very long.”
Hargrove returned to help provide protection on three wildcat runs, including two touchdowns by Hall.
Entering the second half of the season, Borbely said it’s time for his unit to come together.
“I told them at the beginning of October, we should really start to hit our stride in terms of understanding and playing fast and no hesitation,” he said.
He believes they will respond. “They’re extremely bright, they study really hard,” he said.
When he gives his video tests Thursdays and Friday, he wants to hear more than “I block the end.” The answers must detailed and includes techniques necessary to neutralize the defensive linemen.
“In the spring, we weren’t very good and it was slow going then,” Borbely said. “It’s a process with that group. Some of it is the same that probably was taught. 'Oh, yeah, he’s calling it apples and last year it was oranges.’
“They just have to mentally convert.
“We’re better than we were when we started, we’re not as good as we’re going to be when we play Miami or get to a bowl game (at the end of the season),” he said. “Hopefully, that’s enough. It won’t take a super-human effort; it will take a great effort. An effort similar to what they did last week.”
Borbely plays a key role in planning the run game each week, working in tandem with tight end and running back coaches Tim Salem and Andre Powell.
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson gets involved, too, in his own way. “Usually yelling at me on Tuesday, 'This isn’t going to work,’ ” Borbely said. “We just need to rep it out.”
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Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.