Pitt's focus still on the ground game

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It's no secret that Pitt coach Paul Chryst hopes to install -- eventually -- a run-based, power offense for the Panthers similar to the one he used with great success as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.

One of the most troubling statistics from Pitt's 41-13 season-opening loss to Florida State was that the leading rusher was not junior running Isaac Bennett, nor was it freshman running back James Conner. It was freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who gained 54 yards on his three end-around carries.

The rushing attack never got rolling as Bennett and Conner, the lead ballcarriers for Pitt this season, only had nine carries apiece for 35 and 34 yards, respectively.

Chryst admitted after the game that the running backs did not get as many carries as he would have liked because his team had to play catch-up against the Seminoles. Getting them in more of a rhythm this week will be a focus as Pitt prepares for New Mexico.

"We weren't very good on first down [against Florida State]," Chryst said. "We need to stay ahead of the chains. That will help. We were bad on third downs. If you convert more than 25 percent of third downs, then you get more kicks at the can. We need to sustain drives."

Bennett and Conner had injuries leading up to the Florida State game but were healthy when kickoff rolled around. Bennett said his health wasn't an issue against the Seminoles.

"I felt like when I was in there, I would get a rhythm," Bennett said. "Coach, he rotates as he feels necessary and we just go with that flow."

While the running game stalled against Florida State, there were some positives to take away. Mostly, it was that Conner got his first taste of college football action and now knows what it feels like to play at this level, likely against one of the best defenses he'll see this season.

Bennett said he didn't give his younger position-mate too much advice before the game, and Conner himself noted that he was surprised how at ease he was on the field.

"Watching James, it's always fun to watch him," Bennett said. "He's so big. He carries that 240 [pounds] real nice. To see him run with all that weight, it's fun watching him."

Bennett also pointed to Pitt's first drive of the game when the Panthers ran for 29 yards as they marched 80 yards for a touchdown.

"The first drive, we came out there and everybody worked together," Bennett said.

There wasn't a whole lot of success for Pitt after that, but the Lobos could be just the tonic needed to get the running game on track.

New Mexico ranks 103rd in Division I-A in rushing defense, allowing 218.5 yards per game on the ground. Last week, they allowed UTEP to rush for 280 yards but pulled out a 42-35 overtime win.

Again, the attack against the Lobos likely will be led by Bennett and Conner. Freshman Rachid Ibrahim had one carry for no yards in his first game and redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett has been in the mix.


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG First Published September 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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