Pittsburgh (2-1), which opens Big East play Saturday at noon at Syracuse (1-3), averages 123.3 yards per game (3.6 per carry), and sensational sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy has just 242 yards after exploding for 1,328 last year. Senior LaRod Stephens-Howling, who put up 221 yards against the Orange two years ago, has just 118 this season but a 5.4-yard average.
"Coach always says that you put on points with the passing game, but you win games by running the ball,'' Stephens-Howling said. "So, we're working real hard on that for Syracuse.''
The Orange has allowed nearly 200 yards rushing per game and 5.1 yards per attempt, so the Panthers could finally break loose this week.
"We're 2-1 and going into the Conference games, so we want to set the tone with a win this week to open the Big East,'' McCoy said. "We're close on offense, but we still need a lot of work. Third downs, we have to get better there, and we definitely need to get the running game going.
"From my standpoint, I need to get it going. I've got to step up. We made some plays in the passing game, but I think we're just missing those big plays that we need. I think we're pretty close, but I we still need more work to get where we want to be. Hopefully, we'll do a lot better this week at Syracuse.''
Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh was equally as optimistic.
"I hope it's real close, but we're all disappointed that the numbers aren't where they should be,'' Cavanaugh said. "I know it's only been a couple games, but we just feel that to complement our offense we need to run the ball for more yards that we're getting. And I think we're close, I really do.
"(But) there have been a combination of things that have held us back. The first game, we weren't ready for the pressures that they used and did not adjust very quickly. The second game, it was kind of the same formula where they wouldn't let us run. They were always going to out-number us.
"But we got some plays out of the passing game,'' Cavanaugh added. "And we missed some reads and some blocks. But we keep working at it very hard, and I'm hopeful that we can get both LaRod and LeSean back on track here pretty quick and start being a little more efficient running the football.''
There are those who believe that Pitt's running game might open up a bit if Cavanaugh was more creative, like using junior quarterback Greg Cross more often and throwing in the Wildcat formation on occasion. Cross had a dazzling 17-yard touchdown run against Iowa, the first time he touched the ball all season, but he was sacked for a 10-yard loss the other time he was in.
"We got the right look, and Greg was able to run it in,'' Cavanaugh said. "We had two options, but they set up where Greg could take advantage of their defense. And he did. ... We practiced it, but it doesn't count in practice. It was imperative that we got the look we were looking for, and it worked out.
"We blocked it very well. John Malecki had a great block. Robb Houser got up to the middle linebacker, and Greg took care of the one guy that we couldn't get a hat on. He followed his blocks and was able to finish it..''
Cavanaugh quickly added that Cross' playing time will be dictated by situations, since Pitt is confident in starting quarterback Bill Stull and his ability to run the offense. But that doesn't mean the Wildcat won't make its season debut this week against Syracuse.
"It's something that you need to mix in when the time is right,'' Cavanaugh said. "It's not something you're going to run 20 plays a game, because people are going to figure it out. We found that out last year. We ran it 2-3-4 games in a row, and people are going to find answers for it, particularly if the guy you're snapping the ball to can't throw that well.''
"If your quarterback is a real athlete who can throw, that's the right combination for it. With Darren McFadden at Arkansas, he's a great athlete who can throw a pretty good pass. So, that was ideal. ... But the most ideal situation is with an athletic quarterback, like Greg, who you don't mind running the football because he's going to get hit a lot.
"But he's got the ability to pull the ball out and throw it,'' Cavanaugh added. "I think he's probably more adept at running the Wildcat, because he can run the ball. And you can mix it in 4-5 plays a game with a quarterback. If it's a bigger part of your offense, you're better off doing it with a back, because he's going to take a lot of hits. And Shady is used to that more than Greg right now.''
McCoy readily agreed and even offered a variation.
"I don't want to do that no more,'' McCoy said. "A guy like Greg, he can run and he can pass. So, you can put me and LaRod in there with him, and that would make us even more dangerous. It would make us a little better there and make it more balanced.
"It's basically a running package, but if you can sneak a pass in there every now and then that would keep defenses honest against you. (But) I've been throwing some passes off it, too, so we're just waiting for the right opponent to use it against. So, that might be this week.''
And that might be just what Pitt's running game needs to get jump-started.
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