As programs grow and seek to establish an identity, it is crucial to make a statement against other large programs, especially an in-state opponent. Sean Cottrell details the Pitt Panthers 99 yard drive that sparked a huge day on the ground against their ancient rival, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
It had been 16 years since the Penn State last visited the Steel City to play their in-state rival Pittsburgh Panthers before Saturday’s matchup. A rivalry that had begun back in 1893 was put on hold for so long that many of the current Pittsburgh players and students had no grasp of the ferocity felt in the hearts of the former Panther players and alumni. While Penn State only held a narrow eight-game advantage in the overall series heading into the game, the Panthers had been the little brother of the rivalry in recent matchups, having lost seven of the last eight and 23 of the past 30 matchups to Penn State.
For former Panther players, this game served as a chance at redemption and that was evident by their attendance as players like Tony Dorsett and several others crowded the sideline and anxious fans filled the seats at Heinz Field. Current Panther players, despite having never played a game against Penn State, surely felt the angst. In their second year under head coach Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers were ready to make a statement, not just a statement for the rivalry but for the program as a whole.
In the offseason, Narduzzi hired N.C. State offensive coordinator Matt Canada for the same position at Pitt. In 2015, Canada’s N.C. State offense averaged over 33 points and 237 yards per game on the ground, good for 4th in the conference despite only finishing 7-6. After similar success at other former stops such as Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, it is no secret that Canada likes to establish the running game.
For Pitt, however, despite toting the 2014 ACC Player of the Year and cancer survivor James Conner in its backfield, establishing the ground game versus a big, physical Penn State front was a formidable task. Canada wanted to be physical and set the tone for the game but he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that Penn State would sit back and allow him to do it. So, similar to how a witty boxer would attack a bigger, stronger foe, he started by softening them up, attacking the edge before hitting them in the jaw. All of this was evident on Pitt’s very first drive.
After forcing a punt on PSU’s first drive, the Panther’s offense started the game on its own one-yard line. On the first play, quarterback Nathan Peterman set up under center and ran a QB sneak picking up two yards and getting out of the shadow of his own end zone. On the next play, the Panthers have their 22 personnel package on the field and line up in the double wing formation with Peterman (#4) under center and Conner (#24) behind him while Penn State aligns in an under front with eight men in the box.
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Peterman receives the snap with Pitt running an inside zone concept to the left and the backside guard and tackle do a great job digging out the 3 technique, climbing to seal off the backside linebacker. Conner sees the hole and does a great job cutting back, accelerating through the second level and breaking a weak tackle attempt by PSU’s cornerback to pick up 24 yards on the play.
The next two plays were rather uneventful, as Canada called for a power toss sweep to Conner that was snuffed out for no gain and then on 2nd down, the Panthers were called for holding, pushing them back to their own 18-yard line.
Things got interesting again after the penalty though. Facing a 2nd and 19, Pitt lines up in 21 personnel with Peterman under center, Conner as the single back behind him, a strong wing alignment to the right with wide receiver Quadree Henderson (#10) in a tight split to the right. Just before the snap, Henderson motions across the formation to the left then turns back and goes into jet motion back to right just as Peterman calls for the snap.
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When the ball is snapped the Pitt offensive line fires out to its left, blocking up an inside zone play as all three PSU linebackers react and flow to their right with the zone action. While this is happening, Peterman hands the ball to Henderson sprinting full speed to the edge of the defense on the jet sweep. Henderson finds a lane, cuts upfield and turns on the jets to pick up 38 yards before being brought down on the PSU 44-yard line.
On the very next play, Canada calls Henderson’s number again. Peterman is under center with 21 personnel on the field, one WR split wide to the left and wing alignment to the right with Henderson aligned tight to the formation stacked behind the tight end.
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At the snap, the offensive line fakes a zone play to the right, while Peterman turns and fakes the give to Conner before handing the ball to Henderson. Henderson makes it to the edge quickly on an end around, following the wing fullback and lineman who peeled off the zone play and got out in front of him. The PSU linebackers bite again on the zone action with OLB Manny Bowen getting sucked in just long enough for Pitt FB George Aston (#35) to find and occupy him on the lead block. With the ball in his hands, Henderson cuts upfield and picks up nine yards before being tripped up from behind on a shoestring tackle by Bowen.
The PSU front seven wants to attack the Pitt offense downhill but are now being forced to play sideline to sideline. The last two plays are perfect examples of constraint plays. It is no secret that Pitt likes to establish the run with Conner. As such, the number one goal for defenses facing Pitt is stopping the run. These constraint plays act as a changeup that may catch the defense by surprise but also helped keep PSU from being too aggressive in trying to stop Conner. Rather than reacting, they now have to think first. When playing against top-level athletes from another Power 5 conference, however, there is no time to think. Canada knows this, and now, with the defense tired, reeling and, thinking too much, he is going to punch them in the mouth.
With a 2nd and 1 and the ball on PSU’s 36 yard line, Pitt has 21 personnel on the field with Peterman under center, a slot formation to the right, and wing formation to the left. Before the snap, the slot WR goes into a jet motion across the formation.
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Peterman takes the snap and hands the ball to Conner on another inside zone concept to the right. This time, the front side guard does an excellent job digging out the PSU defensive tackle and turning him outside which allows the center to quickly make it up to the second level to seal the playside LB inside, giving Conner a clear path to run. Conner hits the hole with authority, runs through an arm tackle, and bursts down the sideline for a 24-yard gain.
Conner and the offensive line did a great job on this play, but another key to the success was the jet motion and the tight end and fullback to the backside. While the rest of the offensive line is blocking right, the TE and FB fire out to their left as if to lead block for the jet sweep.
Having been burned on two consecutive plays by the jet sweep and end around, the PSU defense commits three defenders this time to stop it. In addition, the jet motion froze the backside DE who was forced to stay home rather than attacking the run from the backside.
On their next play, with the ball at PSU’s 12-yard line, Pitt aligns in 11 personnel with Peterman in the shotgun and Conner offset to his right. The receivers line up in trips to wide side of the field and TE Scott Orndoff in wing alignment to the right side of the formation. PSU still has their base personnel in the game and puts seven defenders in the box.
Just before the ball is snapped, the inside slot receiver goes into jet motion crossing Peterman’s face just after the ball is snapped. In addition to the jet motion, the entire offensive line with the exception of the backside guard blocks down to its right while the backside guard and Orndoff pull around to the left.
With the jet motion and down blocking of the offensive line, PSU’s entire front flows to Peterman’s right with the action but when Peterman receives the ball he keeps it and starts out to his left with Conner on what looks to be an option run.
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The play side LB and safety read the play and come downhill each taking a man. Just before the LB can reach him, Peterman flips the ball underneath to Orndoff on a shovel pass who follows the guard and fights through the PSU defense down to the 1-yard line.
On the next play, Pitt runs a simple inside zone concept to Conner from the double wing formation but PSU is able to hold the line for no gain. Then, on 2nd down, Pitt again lines up in the singleback double wing formation. PSU is in their goal-line package with 10 defenders in the box.
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Peterman calls for the snap and the offensive line fire out zone blocking to their right while both wing backs pull to their left. As soon as Peterman gets the ball in his hands, he turns out to his right and hands the ball to Aston who runs just beyond the unblocked DE breaking into the backfield and cuts it up behind his lead blocking wing TE and into the endzone to give the Panthers a touchdown lead and deliver the first punch in what would be an exciting game.
Pitt eventually won the game 42-39 and had their way with the Nittany Lions on the ground rushing for 356 yards, and one could argue that this first drive played a big role in making that happen. Coming into the game the Panthers needed to make a statement and this drive couldn’t have done a better job of that. Within the game, they also made a statement to the PSU defense that they were going to dictate the play. More importantly, they made a statement for themselves and their program, the Pittsburgh Panthers are playing a new brand of football and are ready to take the next step.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out more of Sean’s work here, such as on what Dorian Green-Beckham can do for the Philadelphia Eagles, how coach Bronco Mendenhall gets to the quarterback, how Carson Wentz did in his first preseason game,what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense, and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.
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All film courtesy of ESPN.
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