Through two games this season, there has been one key item of note that has stood out for this Pittsburgh offense… they aren’t having much success through the air. USC transfer quarterback Max Browne threw for just 140 yards against Bo Pelini and the FCS Youngstown State Penguins and only 138 yards in Happy Valley against Penn State last Saturday. He’s also thrown two interceptions, both of these occurring in their 33-14 loss to the Nittany Lions. Browne’s yardage totals are a significant drop off from last season’s numbers. In 2016, then starter Nathan Peterman averaged 220 yards per game for a very well-balanced Pittsburgh offense.
So, if they aren’t having much luck passing, how are the Panthers moving the chains? Yep, you guessed it… the run game. And if you’ve watched Pittsburgh play in recent years, you know this isn’t just any old run-of-the-mill rushing attack. The Panthers use a significant amount of pre-snap movement and multiple different sets to catch the defense off-guard in their ground attack.
If you can recall last season’s matchup in Stillwater, even though the Cowboys came away with the 45 - 38 victory, the Panthers were able to establish their running game early and keep it rolling throughout the entire contest. They finished with 290 yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. The bulk of the workload fell in the hands of James Conner, who is now playing on Sundays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Conner finished the game with 111 yards and a touchdown.
Now although Conner is in the NFL, that doesn’t mean Pitt is without weapons in the running game. The Robin to Conner’s Batman against the Pokes last year was wide receiver Quadree Henderson. Henderson had 95 yards and 2 scores in Stillwater, and head coach Pat Narduzzi hopes he will be a big part of both the passing and rushing attack for the Panthers this season.
Pitt prefers to get Henderson involved in the running game by utilizing his speed on the jet sweep. As I mentioned above, they will use motion to help the 5’8 speedster build momentum, and once this little guy gets going, he’s tough to bring down. See an example of the jet sweep from last season’s matchup against Oklahoma State:
The Panthers use the double motion at the line of scrimmage to throw a wrinkle at the defense, they then send Henderson in motion and hand him the ball in the backfield. Henderson has some help from his lead blockers and is able to hit the corner and fight his way across the goal line for six.
And even though the Panthers lost their offensive coordinator Matt Canada to LSU, they haven’t scrapped this one from the playbook. Here’s a similar jet sweep they ran with Henderson against Youngstown State this season:
Not as much pre-snap movement in this one, but you see Henderson go in motion again and take the handoff from Browne. You can see Browne follows through with a handoff to the running back which is another option out of this set. After Pitt throws a few sweeps at their opponent, they will fake the handoff to Henderson and give it to their running back Qadree Ollison up the middle.
This is last year’s personnel, but here’s an example of what I just mentioned above. The Panthers send the far-side slot in motion behind the quarterback setting up a sweep, but this time they give it to the running back, James Conner, on a dive up the middle which turns into a big play:
Glenn Spencer and the Cowboy defense will have to disregard all the pre-snap shenanigans that the Pitt offense will pull and focus on their playmakers, Henderson and Ollison. Ollison has 187 yards and two TD’s through two games this season. He’s an extremely talented back and when James Conner missed the 2015 season battling cancer, he rushed for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns and was named ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year. As far as Henderson goes, even though he isn’t having a stealer 2017 campaign, I’ve already highlighted his explosiveness and big play ability. Both guys are extremely dangerous and could cause Oklahoma State some issues if the Cowboys don’t come ready to play on Saturday.
The run game will definitely need to be the Pokes main focus, as Pitt hasn’t seen much success through the air. That being said, the Cowboys can’t forget that Browne was highly recruited out of high school and has a solid arm. When you are playing Pitt, you have to be ready for the play action pass. The Panthers will try to impose their will early on the ground, and once the run game is established they will then try to hit a home run with the play action pass:
I’ve been impressed with the OSU defense so far, albeit against weaker opponents, and I think they can handle this Pittsburgh ground attack. As I stated earlier, Pitt lost their coordinator from last season, but their offensive style of play hasn’t changed all that much. That fact that Oklahoma State has seen some of these sets as recently as last season should definitely bode well for the Cowboy defense. It’s never easy to play any opponent on the road, especially a quality one like Pitt in an NFL stadium, but I’m not too worried about how our D will handle themselves. With what I’ve seen from Jarrell Owens, Daquinton Osbourne, Jordan Brailford, Trey Carter, Cole Walterscheid and the rest of the Cowboy defensive line; I think they will be able to handle themselves quite well. Add in the sure tackling of linebackers Chad Whitener and Justin Phillips, along with the sold play from star linebackers Kenneth Edison-McGruder (if he plays), Calvin Bundage (2nd half only…) and Kirk Tucker, and the physicality of safeties Ramon Richards and Tre Flowers… and I think you have the perfect recipe to stifle, if not completely shut down this Pitt Panther offense.