Just How Good Was Our Running Game?

Just How Good Was Our Running Game?

“I think with the way our run game was, my job was to really fix our passing game and bring someone who could really change and make an impact on our receivers and our quarterbacks” – Pat Narduzzi on why he brought in Mark Whipple and Chris Beatty

By now, if you’ve been following the news then you’ve read or seen the Pat Narduzzi interview where he waxes philosophical on the transfer portal and Mark Whipple’s passing game.  The interview is a couple of weeks old, and if you haven’t seen it you can watch it here.

One thing jumped out at me, and it was not about the passing game.  What I found interesting was that  Narduzzi, in passing, acknowledged that the running game was pretty good, and so it got me thinking, just how good was it?

Actually it was historically good.  I said as much in one of my first posts (right after the Virginia Tech game).  After two more ACC games, the ACC Championship and the Sun Bowl (four games in total), the statement still stands.

If you look at us vs the rest of FBS:

We averaged 228 yards per game, which was good for 18th nationally.

We averaged 5.6 yards per rush, which was good for 13th nationally.


We averaged 2.0 TD’s per game, which was good for 37th nationally.  Not quite in the same class as the two stats above, but still pretty good, (and we’ve already beaten the Offensive Coordinator conversation to death so no need to rehash that…)

If you look at the 2018 Pitt team vs the other Pitt teams since 1975:

We averaged 228 yards per game, which was good for 5th best since 1975.

We averaged 5.6 yards per rush, which was good for the BEST YPA EVER (since 1975 which is all any of us really care about).


We averaged 2.0 TD’s per game, which cracked the top 10.  Specifically the 2018 squad finished as the 9th best since 1975.

For those of you who would like a visual representation here are some graphs:


top 10 seasons - rushing yards _ game (1)
Note that two of the top 5 belong to Tony Dorsett. Notice that three of the top 6 belong offensive lines primarily recruited by Paul Chryst.

top 10 seasons - rushing yards _ attempt (1)

top 10 seasons - rushing touchdowns _ game
It is fair to note that Pitt finished 90th in Red Zone Efficiency in 2018. You have to wonder if Shawn Watson would still be employed if he’d just kept it on the ground more inside the 20?

Pretty good stats right?  So what made us so good at running the ball?  In this case I believe our success can be boiled down to three things:

  1. Two Talented Senior Running Backs.
  2. Running back Coaching
  3. The Offensive Line

(Editor’s Note:  There are actually four things that contributed, and I was extremely remiss not to note the impact of Senior Fullback George Aston.  Aston’s run blocking was brutally effective in both 2016 and 2018, which also happened to be two of the top YPC years in Pitt history.  Aston was hurt in 2017 and it clearly impacted our ability to make big gains on the ground.  My apologies George!) 

First, the running backs.  Hall and Ollison rank as (statistically) the top single season running back tandem in Pitt history.   I believe a big part of this is because they stuck with the program for four years and developed into really good seniors.  As a reward, both of them are going to have a good shot at getting drafted.  Hall was invited to two college all-star games, and Ollison was recently invited to the NFL combine.   I’m not sure if anyone would have bought into that if we brought that up as a prediction three years ago, so credit where credit is due.  Nice work Hall & Ollie.

Now lets talk coaching.  Powell has done a nice job developing our backs.  And Qadree Ollison alluded to this after his 97 yard touchdown run in the Virginia Tech Game (emphasis added by me)

As a running back, it’s my job to make a guy miss. It’s my job to run a guy over, not let one guy tackle me.  Just running with power, running violent.

“It’s my job”.  He said that twice, and I’ll bet he didn’t come up with it on the spot.  Somebody told him that.  Somebody indoctrinated it into his head.  That somebody is Andre Powell, and I think that we need to like what we’ve seen from Powell during his tenure.

2015:  Ollison – 212 / 1121 / 5.3 / 11

2016:  Conner (coming off of chemo) – 216 / 1092 / 5.1 / 16

2017:  Hall – 128 / 628 / 4.9 / 9  (Editor’s note:  This was the worst lead RB performance in quite some time…but we all know the issues we faced in 2017)

2019:  Ollison – 194 / 1213/ 6.3 / 11

2019:  Hall – 153 / 1144 / 7.5 / 10

A quick glance at the numbers above shows a minimum of +1 YPC increase over any previous year.  Some of this was Yards After Contact (I have no stats on this so please post link if you do) and some of it was just great blocking.

This brings us to the offensive line.  The 2017 line was not good.  That is part of the reason why we didn’t have a 1000 yard rusher in 2017.  Dave Borbely was brought into fix things in 2018, and (at least in the running game) he did.  What’s more, he did it with what was widely considered to be marginal talent, at least going into the season.  From my prior article on the running game:

  • Our starting left tackle was a two-star recruit and transfer from a tier-2 MAC program
  • Our starting right tackle was a slow-footed guard who was forced to play out of position.
  • Both of our starting guards spent most of their college careers switching positions and were originally recruited by Paul Chryst to play defense.
  • Our center was a redshirt sophomore walk-on.
  • The line’s average recruiting stars: 2.4

Borbely’s zone blocking scheme helped a lot, but so did his ability to develop run blockers.  I remember one of the guards (can’t recall if it was Herndon or Dintino) in a preseason interview basically saying that Borbely was a better coach than Peterson.  He was diplomatic of course, and he said something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing here) “I personally take coaching better [from Borbs], and I’ve developed a lot”.  I’d say the entire line developed a lot, because they finished 23rd in “Line Yards” (a measure of how well they opened holes for runners), and a whopping 3rd in “Power Success Rate” (a measure of how successful they were in getting a first down or a touchdown with 2 yards or less or less to go on 3rd or 4th down).

Pitt ranked 44th and 89th respectively in these two categories in 2017.

The other thing I will point out regarding the O-line was that with the exception of Center Jimmy Morrissey, they were all Seniors.  Physical development matters.  I believe 2018 was a case of four somewhat-talented, well-developed 21 and 22 year olds who out-executed and out-muscled more talented but less developed youngsters in many cases.  As a Pittsburgh football fan, you have to love that.

So to wrap it all up, we had a great year on the ground because of a perfect storm (in a good way).  We had couple of talented and well-developed senior backs.  We had a great run blocking offensive line, and the backs and line were coached by the right guys at the right time.

I’m not sure if we can continue to churn out these types of stats year over year, or if “Air Whipple” will even want to, and that is a topic for another post.  What I can tell you is that despite how the season went or the rest of the team performed, and despite whether or not you believe the program is trending up, we witnessed something rare and spectacular in 2018, and we should all be proud of that.

Hail to Pitt