Kevin Gorman: Pitt backs pull a throwback to beat Syracuse in OT
Once Pitt weathered the storm against Syracuse, Pat Narduzzi decided that the way to win this homecoming game was to ride senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall.
Grind it and go, the Pitt coach called it.
The only sight better than Pitt in its beautiful royal blue-and-yellow throwback uniforms Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field was the way the Panthers went retro with their running game.
Ollison and Hall asked for the game to be put on their backs, and the duo took turns dominating the fourth quarter. Ollison rushed for 192 yards and a touchdown, and Hall added 107 and two scores in propelling the Panthers to a 44-37 overtime victory over Syracuse.
“That’s definitely Pitt football,” Ollison said. “We take pride in running the ball. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Pitt has had duos run for 100 yards in a game in recent years, but for both to be running backs made this special. Not since James Conner ran for 119 yards and Isaac Bennett for 101 against New Mexico in 2013 had two Panthers backs accomplished the feat. Prior to that, it was LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling against Cincinnati in ’07.
When the game was on the line, Pitt put its pride in its offensive line and the bruising backs. Trailing by two touchdowns in the first quarter, it gave the ball to Ollison on second-and-4 at its 31. Never known for his speed, Ollison broke two tackles and streaked down the sideline for a 69-yard touchdown to get Pitt back into the game.
“It’s our job to break tackles. It’s our job to make people miss,” Ollison said. “I think we did a good job of that.”
The Panthers started the second half with all of the momentum before rain and lightning forced the stadium game to be delayed for more than an hour. When it resumed, Syracuse scored twice to take a 34-27 lead, and its pass rush put pressure on Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, sacking him three times for losses totaling 24 yards.
Syracuse defensive end Alton Robinson blindsided Pickett to force a fumble that was recovered at the Pitt 31, and the Orange scored the go-ahead points. That’s when Pitt turned to its run game, not so much out of superiority as necessity.
“Put the ball in our hands,” Hall said the backs implored the coaches. “It’s my job to be explosive. I was like, ‘Just get us the ball, and we’ll make something happen.’ ”
Pitt ran the ball on 16 of the next 17 plays in regulation and five consecutive in overtime, rotating Ollison and Hall to wear down Syracuse’s defense. The Panthers used direct snaps, making it clear that the offense had only one option.
“They know what’s coming,” Hall said. “They know what plays we’re about to run, and they can’t stop us. That’s the mindset we had in the second half: ‘Hey, we’re going to run it down their throat the whole game until we win.’ ”
Ollison started the first scoring drive with a 29-yarder, and Hall added a 25-yarder to set up his 7-yard touchdown to tie it at 34-34. When Syracuse responded with a go-ahead field goal, 5 minutes, 53 seconds remained on the game clock.
The Panthers ran 11 consecutive plays, driving from their own 25 to the Syracuse 27 before attempting a pass. That included a direct snap to Ollison on fourth-and-3 at its 48 that saw him get the first down and a third-and-1 at the Syracuse 40 that saw Hall get 7 yards. The Panthers settled for a 45-yard field goal by Alex Kessman to force overtime.
That’s when Hall scored the winner, stretching across the goal line for a 3-yard touchdown that a video review confirmed.
In the fourth quarter and overtime, Ollison and Hall combined for 144 rushing yards on 22 carries. For two backs who have spent their careers competing, they were only happy to share the spotlight. It was an effort Syracuse coach Dino Babers, a former Pitt running backs coach, would have appreciated if it hadn’t come against his defense.
Narduzzi couldn’t wait to watch the tape.
“There were some tough yards in there,” Narduzzi said. “It wasn’t just big ol’ holes they were plowing through. Some of those 3- and 4-yard gains that we were grinding it out to get 10 yards, those were hard runs where you go, ‘God, they did it all by themselves at times.’ I know we were blocking, but, man, it looked like it was five guys on a back running some of those runs.”
It looked like a throwback to the glory days of Pitt football, when the Panthers boasted some of the best backfields in the nation. Ollison and Hall honored those players with their performance.
“You play for the guys who played here already,” Hall said. “They wore these jerseys, and you want to make them proud.”
The Panthers had to be proud of the way they looked and especially the way they ran the ball to beat Syracuse.