Panthers working hard on adding more octane

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Todd Graham described Pitt's offensive system as being "explosive" when he was first hired. As of yet, the Panthers haven't really detonated.

That's because the Panthers have had a decided lack of "explosive" plays -- running plays of 12 yards or more and passing plays of 15 yards or more -- and they have had very few big-play touchdowns.

This is especially true in the passing game, which has effectively turned into a dink-and-dunk attack that rarely takes shots down the field.

And that, of course, frustrates Graham, who believes explosive plays are necessary for his offense to operate at the level he prefers. But, the Panthers are working on it.

"I'd say that 70 percent of our time this week as a staff has been spent on that," Graham said. "Earlier this year you heard me talking about how all of our drives end [in a goal-line package] with us pounding it in, and that is too hard. You are not going to score a high rate of points and be that way.

"So that has been a struggle for us, but what happens is, you struggle with protection and you struggle with getting the ball out on time and so you stop calling them -- and we've stopped calling them."

Pitt has scored 19 touchdowns this season and only two -- a 66-yard pass to Devin Street from Tino Sunseri and a 30-yard pass to Cam Saddler from Ronald Jones (both against Iowa) -- have been longer than 20 yards.

Through six games, Pitt has 51 explosive plays by Graham's definition and 22 are Ray Graham runs. Add six other runs to that total by other players and that means that Pitt has had only 23 passing plays of 15 yards or more.

And of those 23 plays, only 13 have been 20 yards or longer and only three have been 30 yards or longer.

Graham said long touchdown passes have been a part of his offenses for as long as he has been a coach, but this year has been a struggle in large part because of protection issues resulting in sacks or turnovers.

As a result, the offense has been in bad down-and-distance situations to try to take shots down field or hasn't had enough possessions to get into a rhythm.

"What has hurt our productivity is the negative yardage plays," Graham said. "And naturally the turnovers are killing us as well.

"That's been the most frustrating. We've got to get those explosive plays and there are lots of ways to do that, that's our focus."

Graham pointed to the South Florida game, a 44-17 win and the only game Pitt has scored 40 or more points this year, as an example of what the offense is capable of if they hit big plays.

The Panthers had a season-high 14 explosive plays, including five of 20 yards or longer.

"That's how you score 44 points in a game," Graham said. "But we've got to execute and take things from the practice field into the games."

Although the offense hasn't made many explosive plays, it hasn't been alone -- the defense and special teams haven't scored a touchdown this season.

Pitt has forced only seven turnovers in six games, and only three of them are interceptions, even though the Panthers have had their hands on a number of footballs and dropped them.

NOTES -- Graham hinted that there may be another shakeup of the offensive line Saturday against Utah, with Matt Rotheram now in the mix at several positions. "Rotheram has stepped up and is doing some good things for us. He is a big imposing guy," Graham said. Rotheram could be in the mix at guard or tackle. ... Guard Lucas Nix (knee) is still day to day, and if he can't play Saturday, he will again be replaced by Ryan Schlieper. ... Graham said Todd Thomas (knee) is improving and is hopeful that he will be able to play.


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.


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