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Pitt running game woes contributing to offensive issues

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Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of Pitt's inability to pass the ball this season. That has led to the Panthers flip-flopping quarterbacks Max Browne and Ben DiNucci to try to establish a rhythm.

But the bigger problem for Pitt might be the running game. Pitt hasn't had much trouble establishing a solid running game for some time now. Last year, in addition to the 1,092 yards from James Conner, Pitt also got nearly 2,000 additional yards from its other running backs and gaggle of other players that carried the ball, mostly on trick plays. The leader there was actually wide receiver Quadree Henderson, who netted 631 yards on the ground for a gaudy 10.5 yard-per-carry average. All told, Pitt ran for 2,926 yards (about 225 yards per game) and had a 5.4 ypc.

This year, things haven't been nearly as successful. Four games in, Pitt has a total of 503 rushing yards, averaging about 125 yards per contest and a miserable 3.3 ypc. Qadree Ollison has been the team's best rusher and his 204 yards put him on pace for about half of the stellar 2014 year he had as a true freshman.

There are several potential culprits for the low rushing totals of course and three in particular stick out to me.

First, there's no James Conner. I expected the blow dealt to Pitt by his departure wouldn't be quite as harsh since Ollison had proven himself before and the team also had three other guys to turn to if he didn't work out. But the fact is that no one has run with the (pardon the John Cena lingo here) ruthless aggression that Conner did. Conner hit holes and hit them hard, and also steamrolled over defenders like no one on the current roster does. His loss has hurt more than I expected it might. There's just no one to get the tough yards needed right now.

Second, the offensive line is significantly different. Pitt losing Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty to the NFL Draft has really caused some problems not only in pass protection but also surely in the running game where there haven't been as many holes. I'm convinced that Ollison, for example, hasn't merely forgotten how to be a good running back. We've seen the line play deteriorate in the passing game with a lot of pressure being put on the quarterbacks and I'm convinced that, even though it's hard to detect in the running game, that there are negatives there, too.

Finally, teams are now hip to Pitt's trick plays and jet sweeps. The Panthers were able to catch teams off guard last year and that simply isn't the case this season. Opponents have known what to expect and that's taken away a big part of the success the team enjoyed in 2016.

As an asterisk, I'd also add that the competition has been pretty good. Pitt has already faced two ranked teams and a third that could find their way into the rankings at some point. The lone 'cupcake' they've had is a team expected to contend for the FCS championship. The good news for the Panthers is that they've already faced the toughest teams on their schedule and that has surely had at least some effect on what the team has been able to do on the run.

Curing the running woes might not fix the season entirely but without a capable running game, the Panthers won't stand a chance.

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