Football: Pitt must dominate trenches against Florida State

By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Pitt head coach Paul Chryst generally isn’t one to delve into the specifics of events down the road, but in his media address Monday, he identified one early key to finding success against No. 11 Florida State on Sept. 2: controlling the line of scrimmage.

“That will certainly play a big role,” Chryst said. “Line play in general will be significant.”

On Pitt’s end, the defensive line looks like an early strength for the Panthers. 

Tyrone Ezell and Aaron Donald return as starters from last year’s team, having racked up a total of 103 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks as the first teamers at the defensive tackles position. Flanking the two will be a combination of David Durham, Bryan Murphy and Ejuan Price, who is listed as a starter on Pitt’s depth chart at each end slot with Durham and Murphy. 

“We count the defensive line as one of the strengths of our program, and Florida State certainly has a great offensive line,” Chryst said. “In most football games, whoever controls the line of scrimmage is the team that has the advantage.”

It’s a challenge at the forefront of the litany of ones facing the Panthers in their ACC debut. But if the Panthers can respond to the challenge and overcome it, Pitt’s d-line play might very well help knock out a number of other challenges. 

That starts with pressure. 

“We want to make their quarterback uncomfortable,” Chryst said. “The key to all football is to stop the run. If you can do a good job of stopping the run, then it’s easier to get pressure on the quarterback.”

And quarterback refers to redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2012. While Winston has yet to play in a college game, shutting down one, if not both, of the dual-threat quarterback’s threats is a must for the Panthers. 

Ahead of him, though, is the tandem of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder. Freeman ran 111 times for 660 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012, while Wilder carried the football 110 times for 835 yards and 11 scores. 

Stopping, or at least containing, the pair of explosive junior tailbacks is the priority for a Pitt defense that wants to use its overpowering line to wreak havoc in the Florida State backfield, especially against a quarterback making his first career start. 

But to do so, Pitt will need to make serious adjustments as the game progresses to keep pace with a Seminole offense that possesses a dominant edge when it comes to the speed department. 

“You really can’t simulate size and speed,” Chryst said. “When you’re playing an opponent with a lot of speed at different positions like Florida State, the best thing you can do is go with your best players and then adjust.”

While the line is strong, the possibility remains that the Panthers won’t hold an advantage on the line of scrimmage as it matches up against a massive offensive line with massive experience. 

No lineman for the Seminoles weighs less than 300 pounds, and the line consists of four juniors at the tackle and guard slots with senior Bryan Stork anchoring the center position. 

At Heinz Field next Monday, penetrating the FSU backfield starts with Aaron Donald. The 6-foot, 285-pound tackle is well on his way to becoming just another lineman from Pitt to become one of his conference’s best, and Donald earned first-team All-Big East honors in 2013. 

While the upset chances of Pitt remain relatively low, those odds will likely skyrocket if Pitt can control the tides of battles waged at the line of scrimmage. 

“That’s the starting point,” Chryst said. “We want to run the ball and protect the quarterback. We’ll see how our defensive line matches up against their offensive line.”