Football: Panthers face option offense in away contest at Navy


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Pitt football encounters two weeks of option-based offenses, starting this week at the home of the Navy Midshipmen. Head coach Paul Chryst said the team has been preparing this style of offense since training camp, and Saturday provides further practice for Georgia Tech, the Panthers’ opponent on Nov. 2.

“The next two weeks are totally different than what we saw earlier,” Chryst said. “I feel good about our guys and we spent some time in camp on [the option offense]. Our guys should have a good idea of what to expect to face on Saturday.”

Pitt (4-2, 2-2 ACC) takes a break from ACC play this week when the Panthers head to Annapolis, Md., for a matchup Saturday at 1 p.m. with the Midshipmen (3-3) at Navy Memorial Stadium. 

“Navy presents some challenges for us defensively, as they have a style that we need to prepare for,” Chryst said. “Offensively, we’re preparing for a team that is a little different defensively, so we have to have a good week of preparation.”

That style is the vaunted triple-option offense, which has propelled Navy to the nation’s sixth-best rushing attack at just over 300 yards per game on the ground. Consequently, Navy averages only 103.7 passing yards per game because of the run-heavy attack.  

“In option football, you have option principles defensively, and we have to make sure our kids understand it — and for that, we have to make sure we have a good plan for them to understand,” Chryst said.

One of the key reads, or principles, for an option offense is what the defensive ends do on each play. 

If an end crashes to the ball, the quarterback will keep the ball and run himself. If the end takes a less aggressive approach, the quarterback hands the ball off.

The importance of the defensive ends’ play this week in scheming for an option offense leaves major responsibility mostly on the shoulders of Bryan Murphy, David Durham and others. Pitt is without Ejuan Price, one of its best pass-rushers. Chryst said Thursday tha Price is out this weekend with a back injury.

“We have to be very disciplined in our keys,” Murphy said. “We can’t make any mistakes. If we do make any mistakes and one person doesn’t cover their man, then Navy could hit us for a big run.”

The play of the ends will go a long way in determining the extent to which Pitt can limit Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, the team’s leading rusher. In 2013, Reynolds has rushed 126 times for 453 yards and 10 touchdowns.

In Navy’s six games, a stark pattern has developed that could give Pitt a clear objective in defending Reynolds: When Navy’s quarterback rushes for 100 yards or more, the Midshipmen are 3-0, but Navy is yet to win a game this season when defenses hold Reynolds below 100 rushing yards. 

With Price out this week — as well as tackle Cory King, who also missed the Old Dominion game — Chryst said Thursday that wide receiver Devin Street and tailback James Conner are ready for action this week. Conner dressed against Old Dominion but did not play a single snap, while Street was inactive. Both were withheld from action due to shoulder injuries.

The returns of Street and Conner should boost an offense that relied solely on the efforts of running back Isaac Bennett last week, who ran 30 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Street’s return specifically should impact a passing game that was lackluster last week, as quarterback Tom Savage completed just 11 of 18 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.

The impact of the running game boosted confidence among the offensive line, a unit that allowed 15 sacks total in the two games prior to Old Dominion. 

“There were times when we called the same play multiple times in a row just because it was working and they couldn’t stop it,” right guard Matt Rotheram said. “That feels great as an offensive lineman.”