Looking back at Pitt’s big opening week win against Delaware, there was plenty to like about the Panthers opening 62-0 victory.
The Panthers played as near a perfect game as they have in quite some time, but it was the offensive line that set the tone.
That’s an offensive line that came into the season surrounded by question marks and while the opponent was only the FCS’ Blue Hens, the Pitt offensive line passed with flying colors. At the minimum that is an encouraging sign heading forward.
“It was awesome,” said Pitt center Artie Rowell. “You’re successful the first time and then you have the same success the second and third times and you start to build momentum. That’s what the game is all about, capturing that momentum and keeping it. We haven’t been able to do that running the football in a long time.”
What Rowell is referring to is an impressive performance in which the Panthers racked up an impressive 409 yards rushing in the rout. It was the best performance since Pitt rushed for 307 yards against USF in 2011.
“That was good,” said Rowell. “It was fun to be able to line up and run the ball like that. You’re doing something right up front.”
The beneficiary of the Panthers’ offensive line’s performance was obviously running back James Conner, who finished the game with 153 yards and four touchdown runs, scoring on runs of 7, 8, 1 and 19 yards in only a quarter and a half of action. It was the first time a Pitt back has rushed for four touchdowns since Dion Lewis accomplished the feat against Cincinnati in 2010. Conner did so on only 14 carries.
But the sophomore wasn’t the only one who make it look easy.
Sophomore Rachid Ibrahim gained 91 yards on only 14 carries. Freshman Chris James gained 77 yards on 14 carries, including a pair of touchdowns. And senior Isaac Bennett gained 32 yards with a touchdown on six carries in his return from injury. Add all of that up and the Panthers averaged 7.3 yards per rush on 56 attempts.
“It was real fun running the ball on a day like today,” said Conner. “They (offensive line) are great. I think this year it is a family atmosphere. They are taking time seriously in the meeting room and getting better day by day.”
For a change it helps that Pitt returns four starters on that unit.
Coaches can’t say enough good things about redshirt senior right tackle T.J. Clemmings, who was playing his first season on offense last year after switching from defensive end. He has impressed so much that Clemmings was voted a team captain.
Adam Bisnowaty returns at left tackle after his season was cut short last year by a back injury. Throw in the highly thought of Dorian Johnson at left guard and that side of the line has a chance to be very good.
Rowell starts at center and Matt Rotheram will be back at right guard.
It would be nice to see all five guys start the entire year and see how far they can come as a unit. If they can continue to get better week to week, it will be nice to see how productive the Panthers can be running the football.
“We were able to run the football,” said Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. “Anytime you do that it speaks well about the offensive line. I thought they were pretty good. We didn’t get caught in tough down and distance situations. We did some good things.”
In the process, being able to run the ball so effectively helped take the pressure off sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik, who was making his first collegiate start.
“Chad said before the game let’s make it easy today and we did,” added Conner. “Us coming out and running the ball right out of the gate boosted his confidence and we need that. He is the leader of our offense.”
While the performance from the guys up front was certainly a great one, they obviously know things will be much tougher going forward, beginning Friday night when Pitt travels to Boston College.
At least for the weekend though, the Panther offensive line can sit back and take in the fact that they played a big role in Pitt not only rushing for over 400 yards as a team, but helping set an all-time record for points scored at Heinz Field as well as producing Pitt’s biggest margin of victory since defeating Temple 76-0 in 1977.
“Good,” added Rowell. “It is the first time in a few years. One of our managers said it was a Heinz Field scoring record, which is awesome and we are proud of that. Coach just told us that we are not going to be arrogant enough to not celebrate our win. We are happy about it, but we are moving forward. We are not going to hang our hats on this game. We are going to continue to do what we do. To work and play ball this way.”
Naturally the Panthers won’t run the ball for 400-plus yards against ACC opponents, but if they improve enough to run the ball effectively and improve from an offensive line that allowed the fifth-most sacks in all of the FBS last season, this Pitt offense could turn out to be a pleasant surprise.
We will find out Friday if this offensive line can produce similar results against an ACC opponent.
Photo Credit: Associated Press