Pitt football needs to find its running game again to win


RB James Conner is one of three Panthers on the Wuerffel Trophy watch list. Meghan Sunners | Senior Staff Photographer

Losing on a 57-yard field goal is tough.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi thinks the team can handle it.

“We talked about being a tough-ass team, and that’s what our kids were today,” Narduzzi said.

Toughness, however, won’t cover up the fact that Pitt had many opportunities to make sure its 27-24 road loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes didn’t come down to a long field goal. Pitt’s running offense — or lack thereof — is what hurt the team most against Iowa. Pitt managed only 55 yards on the ground on 27 carries, for an average of two yards per carry, with no rushing touchdowns.

Coming into the year with a full stable of backs — including James Conner, Rachid Ibrahim, Chris James and two talented freshmen, Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall — rushing yards seemed easy to come by.

But Ibrahim tore his ACL in training camp, and Conner is out for the year with an MCL injury following the season opener against Youngstown State.

And even though losing a Maxwell Award Watch List athlete like Conner is difficult, Ollison’s 207 yards against Youngstown State — and Pitt’s 7.6 yards per carry average — made us hold on to our rose-tinted glasses.

Against Akron, Pitt managed 128 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, but had an average of 2.7 yards per carry — far less explosive than the opener. And then came the Iowa game.

Though the results have declined, Narduzzi still has confidence in the backs he has and refuses to blame injuries — especially Conner’s — for the trouble.

“I can miss a lot of guys. I can miss Rachid [Ibrahim] … we got a lot of faith in Ollison, and Darrin Hall and Chris James,” Narduzzi said.

But looking at two plays for Pitt, it’s easy to see where Conner was sorely missed.

In the first quarter, down by a field goal at 3-0, Pitt had the ball on its own 25. Redshirt junior Nate Peterman commanded the Pitt offense as quarterback after leading Pitt in relief against Akron in place of then-starter junior Chad Voytik.

In the seven-play drive that followed, Pitt took four plays to go 69 yards, then three plays to turn the ball over just six yards from the end zone.

Hall took the ball and gained only one yard. Then Peterman attempted to scramble and gained nothing. So on third down, Peterman forced a throw, and Iowa defensive back Desmond King picked him off in the end zone — both Peterman and King’s second interception of the game.

“If you don’t get it, everybody’s going, ‘Oh gosh, what did we do that for?’”

Pitt fans know Conner for having quite the nose for the end zone. He scored a Pitt-record 24 times last year and even managed two more scores before his injury against Youngstown State.

But no Conner meant Pitt had to move to other methods to get the ball in the end zone, which led to a turnover.

In a game decided by one possession, with a turnover margin of -1 toward Pitt, this was a fatal mistake.

Pitt’s running game’s decline was similarly evident on a fourth-and-inches play with the score tied at 17-17, early in the fourth quarter.

The ball was on Iowa’s 42. Narduzzi knew going for it would be risky.

“You go for that and you don’t get it? You put your defense in a bad position,” Narduzzi said. “If you don’t get it, everybody’s going, ‘Oh gosh, what did we do that for?’”

Pitt tried to draw Iowa offside, and, after failing to do so, punted. Iowa scored on the subsequent drive, and while Pitt tied the game, enough time had worn down to give the Hawkeyes the final possession. They then won as time expired.

This short yardage situation is where Conner — with his ability to shrug off defenders — could have been precious.

And while redshirt freshman Ollison showed the ability to truck defenders during his breakout game against Youngstown State, he only received four carries against Iowa all game.

Pitt instead relied on Hall for most of the game. He got the lion’s share of carries — 14 — but he only managed 38 yards, with no scores.

Narduzzi was complimentary of the true freshman, who was a four-star recruit out of Ohio.

“I thought Darrin Hall really ran the ball well,” Narduzzi said. “He had a great week of practice.”

Iowa has one of the top run defenses in the NCAA. This season, it has given up only 51 rushing yards per game, tying with North Carolina State for fifth in the country. Running backs are averaging only 1.87 yards per carry against Iowa’s defense.

Every bit of length matters in football. Pat Narduzzi sees this as the reason Pitt lost Saturday.

“We didn’t get the inches we need at times to win the football game,” Narduzzi said.

If Pitt doesn’t improve the run game, then losing by inches will be the norm.

Pitt has a bye week next week. It will play at Virginia Tech on Oct. 3.

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