It has been the hot question around the Pitt football team this week:
What went right in the 28-21 win Saturday against Notre Dame that had gone wrong in the previous two losses?
For center Artie Rowell, the answer was easy.
“I think it’s simple: We ran the football,” Rowell said. “Whenever you can run the football, that opens up the passing game.
“I’m not exactly sure of our rushing stats Saturday night, but it was just obvious the piles were going forward, not backward. We were covering guys up, and when you run the football, things go well.”
Pitt rushed for 112 yards, its fifth-highest total this season. It wasn’t overpowering, but the Panthers got enough yards when they needed them.
Late in the fourth quarter, Isaac Bennett rushed for 11 yards on two plays to get a first down and seal the victory.
That rushing success started up front. In addition to the rushing yards, the offensive line gave up just one sack to the Irish.
“If you play hard, you stay with it, you can get it done,” offensive line coach Jim Hueber said.
“It was far from perfect, I think everybody knows that. It never is perfect, but they played hard, they hung in there to the end, so it was great. It was great to watch them play.”
Notre Dame tried to confuse Pitt by mixing up its defensive alignments a bit more than the Irish had showed on film. Just seconds before the snap, the defensive line would shift into a new formation, giving Rowell just seconds to identify it and make his call.
“That can be tough,” Rowell said. “You really have to trust your rules and your technique and the guy beside you. There’s different combination blocks, and if you’re not trusting the guy beside you to come or not come with you, it can cause a long day.”
The offensive line has gone through some shuffling the past few weeks.
Ryan Schlieper has stepped in at right guard to replace the injured Cory King, who has missed the past four games and is listed as week to week. Schlieper said King was in his ear all night Saturday, giving him advice about blocking the Irish.
“Cory’s like my best friend,” Schlieper said. “It’s good and bad that we’re in this situation together. I don’t know if I could do this if it was someone I didn’t like. Since it’s Cory, I love Cory. It’s a team.”
The offensive line will face a different challenge this weekend against North Carolina.
Hueber said the Tar Heels rely more on speed than the Irish, which anchored their defense around powerful 350-pound nose tackle Louis Nix.
The Tar Heels have 17 sacks, led by defensive end Kareem Martin and linebacker Norkeithus Otis with 5.5 apiece.
“They have speed,” Rowell said. “Really good team speed, front seven speed. They’re not as big as Notre Dame, but definitely fast guys and they move a lot more.
“Notre Dame played a lot of base defense; these guys will stunt a little bit more and blitz a little more.”
Pitt has struggled with speed rushers at times this year, and Schlieper admitted that quick defensive linemen could be his “kryptonite.”
Hueber, though, didn’t have a preference for what kind of defensive line his unit sees week to week.
“I just want to play well again,” he said. “We’ll find out Saturday.
“Our preparation is going to be against the stuff that they do just like it was against Notre Dame. I don’t know if we’re designed for anything as far as that goes. We’d like to run the ball even better than we did the other night.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.