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Pitt vs. Akron: Running game likely to be Zips' downfall against Panthers

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

I touched on this a bit in the opening preview on Monday, but the more you look at it, the more it seems like the running game will be key for Pitt in their game against Akron on Saturday.

The Panthers have one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, so we know what they're going to be doing. The ball is going to James Conner and other than getting quarterback Chad Voytik some passing work, it's really hard to see much deviation from that plan. In addition to Conner's sheer dominance, Akron has just been horrid against the run.

I mentioned their their 85th ranked rush defense on Monday and it's really easy to see how they got there.

Their sole win was a dominant 41-0 beating of Howard. In such a lopsided game, you might expect the opposing team to have to pile up passing yards. However, despite losing that badly, Howard still racked up 148 rushing yards in the game. Granted, Howard ran the ball quite a bit and only had a 2.9 YPC average, but the nearly 150 yards are still a bit of an eye-opener for a team that trailed 21-0 in the first quarter.

Against Penn State, Akron did a fair job, surrendering only 106 yards on the ground, but gave up a whopping 284 to Marshall last week, allowing two 100-yard rushers.

Really, it could be a similar situation against Pitt this week. If the Panthers get out to a big lead, you can expect to see more of Chris James and/or Isaac Bennett. Paul Chryst will surely want to get Conner some work to build up his stats as he picks up more national recognition, but the more important thing has to be to get out healthy, too.

Akron not only faces a tough task in stopping the run, but will have a hard time in establishing it on their offensive end, too. The team's 91.3 rushing yards rank 119th in the FBS. Pitt, ironically, gives up exactly 91.3 yards per game, and that ranks 15th in the FBS.

When you add everything up, it's the perfect storm. Pitt's bread and butter is on the ground and that's where Akron struggles defensively. Conversely, the Panthers' run defense is strong while Akron's running game is nonexistent. What it all comes down to is meaning that the Zips will need to pass more. But while Pitt's secondary has been shaky, I expect a bounceback game of sorts from the defensive backs. You can bet those guys have heard the criticism all week and this isn't Iowa. The Hawkeyes had a legitimate rushing attack and Akron has no such luxury. The Zips will be passing and Pitt will be waiting for it.

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