It took until the last day of September for the Pitt Panthers to finally shake their losing streak and defeat the Rice Owls. This was only their second win of the season and their first since Sept. 2.
Many marquee players did their part in the Panthers’ success Saturday afternoon — particularly redshirt senior Max Browne, who had arguably the best game of his collegiate career. But when head coach Pat Narduzzi and Browne are asked about the team’s success, they won’t have to look further than a unit that often goes overlooked — the offensive line.
Pitt’s offense opted to use a balanced approach to attack Rice’s defense and amassed 34 total pass attempts and 33 rushing attempts. The run-blocking wasn’t overwhelming, but with the way Pitt moved the ball through the air, it didn’t have to be.
Of the 34 quarterback passing attempts, 32 belonged to Browne. Almost every time the Panthers ran a pass play, the line identified their assigned blitzer and executed their assignment to perfection.
This provided Browne with ample time to go through his progressions, make his reads and find open receivers. Browne completed 88 percent of his passes to 10 different targets for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns.
Those stats would have been impossible without the performance from the five guys in front of Browne. And though the whole line played well, redshirt junior Brian O’Neill stood out.
Most offensive linemen are accustomed to the less glamorous nature of the position, which stems from the evaluation of the line as a whole regardless of individual exploits. However, O’Neill is an anomaly. O’Neill — the 2016 Piesman winner — is no stranger to the spotlight, and the game against Rice was no different.
O’Neill was highlighted Saturday by the ACC Network broadcast team for his invigorating athleticism, especially for a man of his stature — a whopping 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds. He was tasked with lining up across from the Owls’ premier pass rusher — senior defensive end Brian Womac.
Before this game, Rice was among the top 15 teams in the nation in total sacks with 13, and fourth in the nation in sack yards with 107 in four games. The Owls’ sack success is attributed to Womac. He entered the game with four of the team’s 13 sacks and seven tackles for loss — the most of any player on the Owls’ defense.
Browne was sacked only three times in Saturday’s game. One sack was a product of Browne holding onto the ball for too long, and another was on a broken play where Browne tried to escape the pocket. The third was flat-out by Womac — his only tackle of the game.
If it weren’t for his offensive line, Browne could have seen the ground much more. Aside from O’Neill’s performance, the offense performed incredibly overall. They set major momentum by scoring first on only three plays and making three touchdowns in the first quarter alone. Though they only rushed for a measly 69 yards — a number that could bear to be improved — they still managed clean catches and first downs.
Performances like these from the offensive line, regardless of the opponent’s lack of credibility playing major programs, will do wonders for Browne and the rest of the offenses’ psyche, and provide the Panthers the confidence they need for the remainder of their ACC Coastal Division matchups.