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Pittsburgh Offensive Preview: Series Based Running

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Virginia Tech v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Panthers are much better than their 5-4 record would indicate, outside of taking a week off against Miami none of their losses have been by more than a touchdown. The offense hasn’t been what’s lost games for them either. The Panthers offense, coordinated by Matt Canada after he was bizarrely let go from NC State, comes into Death Valley averaging thirty-seven points per game. Kick returner/wide receiver/running back Quandree Henderson may be the most explosive player in the ACC. Running back James Connor returned from cancer to average 4.6 yards per carry and moonlight as a pass rusher. The offensive line returned two All-ACC players and is one of the better pass blocking units in the country. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is usually competent as both a running threat and passer. Clemson is entirely capable of losing this game.

The Pittsburgh offense almost always begins with a speed sweep motion. Most of the running game is built around running speed sweep or running inside zone and bootlegs off the motion. Quandree Henderson will be a decoy or the ballcarrier on more plays than not, and when he can do things like this in the open field it’s not hard to see why he’s averaging nearly ten yards per carry. Given how rarely Pittsburgh generates explosive pass plays the home run threat he (and occasionally defensive back Jordan Whitehad) provide.

From bunch formations the Panthers will often run the sweep as an end around.

Typically Pitt will run inside zone away and have a few skill players lead block for the sweep, the end should be frozen just enough by the need to play the inside zone run. This means that for the linebackers the play looks the exact same until they locate the direction the ball is going.

Pittsburgh typically operates out of 11 or 21 personnel, however fullback George Aston is a versatile enough threat to line up at tight end, carry the football, lead block or release into a pass route. Here he even gets the speed sweep.

On the relatively rare occasions the Panthers line up in the shotgun they have a few additional wrinkles they can throw in off the sweep motion. One is a bucksweep where the running back receives the ball behind the quarterback.

The other is the old Urban Meyer shovel option.

Mix in the occasional draw, zone read and bubble combination, and some inside zone/power running out of the I formation and that’s about all Pittsburgh does in the running game.

Pittsburgh does not pass the ball much, averaging less than twenty four attempts per game, and there’s a reason for that. Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman is a limited threat in the drop back passing game.

While Pittsburgh has been efficient on third down, they have been horrid on passing downs. If you can get this offense off rhythm it can’t often bail itself out. When the passing game does generate a big play it’s usually because someone got lost in the fray after multiple play fakes.

Peterman does do a handful of things well however. First, he is a good enough threat taking off to force teams to respect him on roll outs, and at 225 pounds is plenty willing to lower his shoulder.

Secondly while he can’t reliably throw the ball more than fifteen yards downfield, he throws the ball extremely well while on the run.

This becomes even more dangerous in the play action game. With so many moving players, many of them a threat to carry the ball, it’s easy for receivers to find open grass.

Matt Canada will call a handful of throwback screens to keep teams from overplaying on the roll out pass. He’ll call a screen for his right tackle if he thinks you aren’t respecting the threat.

Peterman isn’t bad making routine throws in the quick game and rarely turns the ball over. He won’t win many games but he won’t lose many.

While I expect the Panthers to struggle to block Clemson up front, the amount of deception they employ is a reason to worry. This is a very well coached offense that may manage to fool some of the more aggressive players Clemson has. The running game is solid and thorough and the passing game does just enough to keep the chains moving. A handful of busted coverages and run fits, a bad game from the offense and a kick return or two would be enough for an upset. Even if Clemson plays well this is a team that is able to keep things worryingly close for as long as possible.

Clemson 35, Pitt 24