Heading into the season, the Pitt running game appeared to be a strength of the team. Led by James Conner, the unit also boasted several other talented backs.
Even without Conner, the running game was a big part of the Panthers' offense. Below are the team's number of carries in each game from the trio of Qadree Ollison, Chris James, and Darrin Hall (Youngstown State includes James Conner):
Youngstown State: 34
Virginia Tech: 24
Georgia Tech: 33
Add it all up and you get 200 total carries, good for nearly 29 per game. The last two, however, have shown a different story. Against North Carolina, that group had only 22 carries. Things were even more lopsided against Notre Dame on Saturday as the Panthers rushed only 16 times with those guys. The 19 carries they've gotten per game in those two contests were almost ten fewer than what they averaged in the first seven.
The first thing to point out, of course, is that game situations dictate some of this. Pitt isn't going to run the ball much on 3rd and 15 or at the end of a half when driving down the field to get late points. Similarly, when they're significantly behind, they can't afford to be a run-heavy offense. That scenario has played out the past two weeks as the Panthers trailed the Tar Heels 20-3 at halftime and was behind at the half 21-3 to the Irish.
But a closer look reveals the Panthers haven't been all that interested in running, even early in games.
In the team's first drive against the Tar Heels, they turned to their running backs only four times in 13 plays. In the entire first half, the trio ran only 11 times in 42 plays. Obviously Pitt was playing behind, but it gets difficult to win when you abandon the run that early in the game. Against Notre Dame, things were nearly as bad. In 37 first-half plays, Pitt ran the ball using Ollison, James, and Hall again only 11 times.
Now, those numbers sound bad. What has to be accounted for is that the team has used Tyler Boyd, and now Jordan Whitehead, on running plays as well. Pitt is running the ball more than that, just different ways. However, those two have had a total of only nine carries over the past two games so it's not as if their carries have accounted for a large amount, anyway.
Specifically I point out the production from those three because they are the primary ball carriers. And when you use them as little as Pitt has in the first halves of those games, a couple of things happen. First, you make it easier to fall behind because if you're not moving the chains or are scoring field goals instead of touchdowns. Second, in terms of these three specifically, you aren't allowing them enough carries to really get into any sort of rhythm.
That point about rhythm is compounded, too, when you look at the inconsistency of how these guys have been used this season. Part of it has been due to injuries, but part of it is also just in terms of rotating guys in and out. Look, for example, at what's happened in the past few games between Ollison and James. Against Notre Dame, James got only two carries all game, despite Ollison struggling (12 carries for 32 yards). In the previous game against North Carolina, the split was more even (James had ten carries and Ollison had 12). Then at Syracuse, it was back to Ollison getting the bulk of the carries (23 to James' seven).
Also, consider the results of these games, too. The lone loss out of the games above? To Iowa. In that game, they rushed only 20 times with the backs. The last two games when those guys have been used less? Losses. The fact that the Panthers didn't win any of those games isn't alarming since all are ranked teams. But one factor in those losses was the lessened use of the running backs. When a guy like James can't get many carries, it makes it difficult for him to be a factor.
Looking at the big picture in total yardage, you get a pretty good idea that Pitt needs to have success running the ball. That trio has averaged 153 yards per game in the team's wins. In the losses? 67 yards per game. The running game hasn't been the only problem in those losses, but it's certainly one of them.
This is a team that, as we continue to see, has a lackluster passing attack. On some level, it just makes good sense to try to get more going on the ground. Again, score and down/distance dictate some of that, but Pitt has been involved in mostly close games this season and found ways to use the running backs more often earlier in the year.
The team doesn't have the offensive firepower it really needs and using the running backs a bit more often to control the flow of the game is something that should be considered.