Pitt’s ground game starts to find a groove against Ohio
Making a passing reference to Pitt’s running game, Ohio coach Frank Solich defined it as accurately as anyone has so far this season.
“They were able to establish a little bit of a running game,” Solich said.
A little bit.
That’s certainly not what Pat Narduzzi wants or needs as the Pitt coach directs his team toward back-to-back games against No. 13 Penn State on Saturday and No. 17 Central Florida on Sept. 21. He’s a coach who wants to build his team around an elite running game.
In the 20-10 victory against Ohio, the ground game was clearly better than it was in the opener against Virginia when Panthers running backs A.J. Davis, Vincent Davis, V’Lique Carter and Todd Sibley Jr. totaled 62 yards on 18 carries.
Those numbers ballooned to 164 and 34 by the same quartet against Ohio, a less challenging opponent. But offensive coordinator Mark Whipple continued to lean the passing game for the important yards while Pitt was building a 17-3 halftime lead. The pass/run ratio settled on 38/36 at the end of the game, but it was 25/14 at halftime.
A.J. Davis was Pitt’s leading rusher with a career-high 89 yards on 13 carries. He also had 13 attempts last season against Albany but only for 46 yards. Clearly, he’s a better back than he was a year ago.
The final possession was impressive. Pitt ran off the last 7 minutes, 5 seconds of the game with 10 rushing attempts for 61 yards and an 8-yard pass to tight end Will Gragg. Vincent Davis, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound freshman, finished with 50 yards and a first-half touchdown on 12 carries. He was a workhorse at the end of the game, running the ball on seven consecutive plays.
“That’s nice to see,” center Jimmy Morrissey said. “It’s always nice when you finish with the ball in your hands and close the game out with your offense.”
Morrissey said he was encouraged “by bits and parts” of the offense.
“There’s a lot more we need to improve on. We’re not there yet,” he said. “Some drives were encouraging.
“We were communicating a lot better toward the end.”
It might not be a reach to say Pitt’s fortunes this season hinge on the development of the young offensive line and backfield. Good run blocking and adequate protection of the quarterback are cornerstones of any team’s offense. Pitt’s failures in those areas led to the loss to Virginia.
Narduzzi doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to name a lead running back.
Junior A.J. Davis, the most experienced of the group, has started the first two games. But freshman Vincent Davis seems destined to burn his redshirt. He had the second-most carries on the team.
“You know, our plan is every week, we’re going to look for the hot hand,” Narduzzi said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .