Isaac Bennett tries to get through a hole in an earlier game against Virginia. He said he would have liked to see more carries on Saturday against Virginia Tech.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For a running back in Paul Chryst's ideal offense, 122 yards and two touchdowns would be considered a pretty good day at the office.
The problem for Pitt is that those numbers represent the running backs' rushing offense over the past nine quarters combined.
Dating to the fourth quarter of the Panthers' win three weeks ago against Duke, the running backs have carried 44 times for the 122 yards, an average of 2.8 yards per carry.
And those numbers aren't even factoring in the 15 sacks Pitt has given up in that stretch, which technically count as part of the team's rushing statistics.
"I think we were really inconsistent, really all over the place," offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said of the running game. "You get opportunities, you know, we came out of it, had some good runs, had some poor runs. At times, you'd like to sustain drives so you come back to it, and we weren't able to do that. All those things kind of go hand-in-hand."
One of the main reasons Chryst cited for the inconsistencies in the running game was that because Pitt allowed so many sacks, the Panthers constantly put themselves in second-and-long and third-and-long situations.
Sure enough, five of Virginia Tech's eight sacks Saturday came on first down.
Center Artie Rowell said he thought the Hokies started dialing up blitzes because they knew Pitt would try to throw the ball.
"I think that they knew which way we were going," Rowell said. "We obviously like to run the ball a lot, but coach calls passes and that's what we've got to block. We've got to do a better job in blocking. I think that they may have had a little bit of a feel for that, and they might have geared up a little bit for pass rush."
The running back trio of James Conner, Isaac Bennett and Rachid Ibrahim combined for just 14 carries against the Hokies, with Conner only getting two after leaving in the first half with a shoulder injury. They ran for 49 yards, a respectable enough average of 3.5 yards per carry.
The problem was there just weren't enough carries to get the offense in a rhythm.
"We had a play blocked great and the back fell down, we had another one blocked great and the guard fell down," offensive line coach Jim Hueber said. "We're that guy with the cloud over our head Saturday. We know it, we know what it is, we can show it to the kids, we've got to work to correct it."
Bennett said he obviously would have liked to see more carries Saturday, but understood that the game situation dictated otherwise.
"From a running back's point of view, we always want the ball in our hands," he said. "We're kind of frustrated when we don't get a chance to run, but at the same time, we just have to do what we can to protect the quarterback so the receivers can get open or so we can get open."
For a team that would like to pride itself on running the football, the challenge this week will be avoiding the frustration that comes with getting stymied on the ground.
The Old Dominion defense Pitt will face Saturday at Heinz Field could be just the antidote. The Monarchs are allowing an average of 201.2 rushing yards per game and gave up 312 yards on the ground to Maryland earlier this season.
"I think it's no surprise that we like to run the football and that opens up our passing game," Rowell said. "That's the thing, though, you can't get frustrated. As much as you want to get frustrated, you just can't because that's when things really go downhill."