While it’s important to recognize running back Ray Graham’s 279-yard performance against Florida International, it would be foolish to overlook what got him there: the offensive line.
Arguably the weakest unit through three games, the offensive line was very effective at paving running lanes for Graham to run free. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt decided to move Lucas Nix to right guard and place Jordan Gibbs at right tackle, moving Greg Gaskins out of the starting lineup. The results were drastic improvement.
“The change with the offensive line — even though it’s just one game, I understand that – I think it’s gonna be a good move for us as we progress down the road week after week,” Wannstedt said after Pitt’s 44-17 win.
What was most impressive about the line’s performance, he said, was the ability of Nix to move to a position he hadn’t previously played and be effective.
“The guy that really had the biggest transition was Lucas going from tackle to guard, which he’s never played,” Wannstedt said. “I was very encouraged for his first game.
“Everything is different to him from a standpoint of pass protection, pulling on our power plays, pulling on the sweeps, screens, all those things. He was really the one that had to make the biggest adjustment. I thought as the game went on he got more comfortable.”
Pitt ran the ball through the left side of the line more often than the right throughout the course of the game. The left tackle, left guard and center positions remained the same as they were in the first three games with Jason Pinkston, Chris Jacobson and Alex Karabin in each respective spot.
However, that didn’t mean the right side was rarely involved. Nix left his right guard spot several times to pull left and get to the second level and makes blocks.
“Me and Jordan are both big guys and we like to get at it,” Nix said. “We like to get downfield, finish our blocks every play.”
The result was, clearly, an effective running game.
As the game wore on, Wannstedt said he noticed Nix and Gibbs becoming more comfortable. Pitt’s offense became more effective in the second half and outscored FIU, 31-7, in the third and fourth quarters.
With the running game clicking, space opened up for quarterback Tino Sunseri to throw the ball. He completed 13 of his final 14 passes and finished 15-of-23 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown.
“You have to give credit to the offensive line,” Sunseri said. “They came out and made holes for (Graham). Whenever you have holes that big and you can make those kinds of runs and make a couple guys miss you can build up those yards. We just wanted to establish the running game (Saturday) and I think our offensive line did a good job of that, allowing Ray to make some cuts and make some reads. Ray was able to do that and he had a heck of a day.
“It slows down those defenders a little bit because now they have to worry about ‘here comes the run,’” he added. “Then all of a sudden we’re kind of just trying to stretch the field and get JB down there and Mike Shan – it’s a total offense. We just wanna come together and get things going. Putting up three points last week (against Miami) wasn’t good enough and we wanna come out here and just try and do the things we could to put up points and help our defense out and not put any pressure on them.”
Sunseri likely appreciated that he stayed upright as well. The line kept Sunseri from being sacked, which was the first such occurrence this season.
In the previous three games, Sunseri was sacked seven times.
“You need to be confident in executing plays,” Wannstedt said, “and we need to continue on, obviously, but that was a good shot in the arm for us.”
Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog