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Pitt needs to slow Youngstown State rushing attack

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Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Pitt will host its season opener against Youngstown State. While the Panthers' secondary could be tested by the Penguins' passing attack (particularly because there are so many questions in that Pitt unit), Youngstown's strength appears to be in its running game.

As I mentioned in the preview, last season, the two-headed monster of Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb ran for more than 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. Ruiz had more than 1,300 of those yards averaging five yards per carry. Webb didn't get as many opportunities, but made even more out of them than Ruiz did, picking up 6.9 yards per carry with nine scores.

Both of the juniors have proven to be effective since they were freshmen in 2013. Ruiz had perhaps his best year as a first-year player when he ran for nearly 1,100 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt, while scoring 15 touchdowns. His carries, yards, and touchdowns were all freshmen records for the program. Webb didn't do that much damage as a freshman, but his 7.2 yards per carry that season along with six touchdowns proved he was a viable threat. Webb was also a one-time MAC recruit at the FBS level, initially signing with Toledo before never playing there and joining Youngstown State.

And while I'm not much of a training camp stats guy, FWIW, Webb had a big game in a scrimmage a few weeks ago. I really only bring it up to show that both are pretty capable backs.

While they complement each other well, head coach Bo Pelini says they can essentially do the same things:

"They’re a good 1-2 punch," YSU coach Bo Pelini said of Ruiz and Webb. "They’re very similar, although Martin is a little bit bigger, and I think they complement each other well. They can both run outside and inside, they both have good vision and they’re versatile guys that can catch the ball out of the backfield."

So now that you're on all out panic alert, one good thing is that Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has seen these guys before. In 2013, he faced them while at Michigan State while the Spartans won a lopsided game, 55-17. In that contest, Ruiz and Webb ran for a total of only 35 yards and Ruiz fumbled twice, so whatever Narduzzi's unit did then worked. Still, you have to keep it mind that both backs were only freshmen then, playing on a big stage for the first time.

The pair looked significantly better last year on the road against, admittedly, an easier opponent in Illinois. Both played a key role in the Penguins' near-upset (they led in the fourth quarter) having big days. Ruiz had a strong game with 116 yards rushing and a touchdown while Webb had 82 receiving and rushing yards. With games on the road at Michigan State and Illinois, it's hard to imagine them feeling overwhelmed when the team comes to Heinz Field on Saturday.

"They’re a good 1-2 punch," YSU coach Bo Pelini said of Ruiz and Webb. "They’re very similar, although Martin is a little bit bigger, and I think they complement each other well. They can both run outside and inside, they both have good vision and they’re versatile guys that can catch the ball out of the backfield. They do a lot of different things that help our offense." - See more at: http://www.vindy.com/news/2015/aug/26/backs-to-front/#sthash.RLC2oZ8D.dpuf

Of course, there's the argument that they are from a small school and not a huge threat. But that notion should easily be discounted as Pitt has had trouble with backs from smaller schools before - even against unheralded rushing attacks (see Akron 2014). The Panthers' front seven will have to pay close attention to the Youngstown State backs and keep them in check on Saturday.

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