Panthers turned back the clock to turn season around
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Darrin Hall paused for a second and pondered the question. Fresh off a 186-yard performance in front of his infant daughter in a victory that catapulted Pittsburgh to the brink of its first appearance in the ACC championship game, the senior running back tried to put a finger on the last time so much came so easily.
"It had to be Pop Warner when I was about 6 years old," Hall said. "But I'll try to keep it going."
So will the rest of the resurgent Panthers (6-4, 5-1 ACC), who have taken on a decidedly old-school persona while resurrecting their season. Pitt is averaging 410 yards rushing during its three-game winning streak, including a staggering 492 in a 52-22 dismantling of Virginia Tech on Saturday that moved the Panthers within one victory of capturing the typically chaotic ACC Coastal Division.
In an era when offenses have become increasingly diverse, the Panthers are going in another direction. Pitt is playing with a determined physicality on offense that eschews intricacy for something more basic. The Panthers snapped the ball 47 times against the Hokies. On 36 of those snaps, quarterback Kenny Pickett either handed the ball off — primarily to Hall or Qadree Ollison — or took off himself.
The way Pickett figures it, why not?
"Those are two of the best backs in the country, no doubt, and you add that with the line that we have, they're a dangerous group," Pickett said. "You feel real good having them two next to you or behind you in the backfield."
Ollison became the sixth player in program history to record multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons after piling up 235 yards and three scores against Virginia Tech, 97 of them coming on a sprint down the right sideline for a fourth-quarter touchdown that marked the longest play from scrimmage ever for a school that's been playing football for 114 years.
And yet all Ollison did afterward was marvel at the play of the offensive line — he had the starting five join him in the postgame news conference on Saturday — and Hall, his longtime backfield mate. The two have forged a unique friendship during their overlapping careers. Ollison has become the workhorse, meaning Hall's touches are somewhat limited.
It's what Hall is doing with those touches, however, that has drawn Ollison's admiration. Hall carried the ball just seven times against Virginia Tech and nearly topped 200 yards, forcing Ollison to do the math.
"That's 27 yards a carry," Ollison said. "I was telling him, 'Save some long runs for me.'"
At the moment, there are plenty to go around for the Panthers. Pitt averaged 13.6 yards per carry on Saturday. The Panthers are 10th in the country in yards rushing per game and do it while working out of a conventional set. No triple option. Little read option. Just line up, snap the ball and go.
"Our offense will be about as foreign to most teams in this conference ... because they don't get to see it every week," coach Pat Narduzzi said.
Maybe, but 10 games in, very few secrets remain. Pitt has struggled throwing the ball all season, forcing the Panthers to rely heavily on the run to move the ball. Virginia Tech — much like every other team Pitt has played over the last five weeks while the Panthers righted their season — knew what was coming. And still, the Hokies couldn't stop it.
"It goes down to the toughness part of the game, so if you're going to be a tough football team, you'd better stop the run and run the football," Narduzzi said. "And that's why we live in Pittsburgh, that's why we're here. That's what the Steelers are; that's what we are."