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Pittsburgh Football: 2014 Panthers Can't Bolster Offense Without Better Blocking

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Pittsburgh Football: 2014 Panthers Can't Bolster Offense Without Better Blocking
USA TODAY Sports

Recently, the sports biopic 42 was seen on premium cable, but Pitt's offensive linemen were too busy watching a horror film—let's just call it "43."

That's the number of sacks that mostly makeshift unit allowed in 2013, which put the Panthers at No. 118 out of 123 FBS teams in said category.

As offensive coordinator at Wisconsin 2005-11, Paul Chryst had a knack for building potent attacks behind remarkably sturdy offensive lines. He has acknowledged the evolution of the collegiate game during that time, and, to wit, he's taken his time grooming fleet-footed, cannon-armed quarterback Chad Voytik.

Still, winning football—especially the kind Chryst envisions—will always have raw power at its roots.

To fully understand his vision, look no further than perhaps the signature moment of Wisconsin's 2010 season—a nationally televised upset of top-ranked Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium (warning: video contains lyrics that may not be suitable for younger audiences):

Future All-American—and Denver Bronco—Montee Ball was a member of that 2010 squad, which ended the year just four Ball rushing yards shy of becoming the first in FBS history to field three 1,000-yard rushers.

With Ball en route to stardom, Wisconsin ranked No. 5 in the FBS in points per game and, in 2011, it set a school record for the same.

The Badgers only allowed 39 sacks over those two campaigns.

Before leaving the program, Chryst also worked with one of Ball's eventual opponents in Super Bowl XLVIII: winning quarterback Russell Wilson.

In 2011, his only season with the Badgers, Wilson led the nation in quarterback rating, despite having limited time to learn Chryst's offense after transferring from North Carolina State.

Entering his third year in Pittsburgh, Chryst's team understands the correlation between putting the Panthers' offense on the uptick and keeping new signal-caller Voytik upright.

That's especially true of junior center Artie Rowell. Named to the preseason Rimington award watch list, he knows nothing absolves them from that responsibility.

Rowell spoke with Bleacher Report about the revolving door of linemen with whom he had to play in his first year as a regular:

There's going to be injuries, just because of the way we play. We play hard. We play smashmouth football, and I think our guys up front love that. We can only control the things we can control, and that means being more consistent.

National college football analyst Phil Steele tries to look scientifically at the true impact of sacks allowed on a team's progress. Even so, the Panthers sat at No. 119 nationally with a 10.72 "sack percentage" (sacks allowed divided by total pass attempts) last year.

Meanwhile, their 5.52 yards-per-play average was a pedestrian No. 73 nationally and No. 9 in the ACC.

They didn't fare much better during Chryst's first year in charge, ranking No. 109 overall in sack percentage and No. 58 in yards per play.

In 2013, Pitt tied for No. 80 nationally in points per game with 26.3 after averaging a negligibly better 26.6 in 2012.

But it's hard to imagine Pitt setting the bar for offensive line play much lower than it did in 2011, under infamous ex-coach Todd Graham. By hemorrhaging 64 sacks, that unit went down as one of the most inept in the history of major college football.

Its tale of woe was a familiar one: poor health and general inconsistency.

Senior guard Matt Rotheram, who has taken his share of lumps since, believes the development of the current O-line—arrested or not—will finally be evident this fall.

"It definitely made me rethink what I'm doing," said Rotheram, who was reminded of his own previous misfortune when defensive lineman Ejuan Price was lost for the upcoming season. "It's been a tough summer program, and I think the team is stronger, faster and in pretty good condition."

Watching tape was just the beginning of an offseason regimen led by strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej, culminating weekly in the running of the Heinz Field rotunda.

"Those workouts have been tough, but they're enjoyable," Rowell said with a smile. "The whole team is there. The freshmen are there. You get to see who's working hard."

For Pitt's offensive line, progress begins, indeed, with the proper work ethic, which is the key to staying on the good side of tough-love O-line coach Jim Hueber. That progress will continue only with the proper talent.

In the twilight of Chryst's tenure at Wisconsin, the Badgers faced the same problem the Panthers have: replacing such talent up front with guys equally capable of paving the way for a capable offense.

He has tried to address that problem by bringing Pitt football back to its roots. Bethel Park (Pa.) offensive lineman Mike Grimm was a key member of his 2014 recruiting class, as was fellow lineman Alex Bookser—on whom in-state rival Penn State was very high—from western Pennsylvania rival Mount Lebanon.

Meanwhile, another local product, Fox Chapel's Adam Bisnowaty, will be one to watch as a second-year starter.

Belle Vernon's (Pa.) Dorian Johnson, once one of the most highly touted prospects in America, will push for more playing time after getting it sporadically as a pure freshman. And there seems to be a growing chemistry on the right side between Rotheram and former defensive tackle T.J. Clemmings.

"The past couple years we've gotten to know each other really well. As a group, we've been able to come together and learn what Coach Hueber has to tell us, and the offense Coach Chryst provides for us," Bisnowaty said. "Hopefully we can emphasize what we can do on the field."

Last season ended with a dramatic win in the Little Caesars Bowl fueled by Voytik and other promising underclassmen—namely receiver Tyler Boyd and tailback James Conner.

Despite the exciting victory, the mood surrounding Pitt was only bullish enough for ACC media to project a sixth-place finish in the Coastal Division (albeit with two first-place votes).

If this line can't block for those rising stars, the Panthers can't prove the looming skeptics wrong.

"We're getting stronger in every aspect of the game—on the field and in the weight room," Bisnowaty affirmed. 

But, as Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pondered at the annual ACC Kickoff event, why should we believe they will be?

As Chryst told him with characteristic bluntness: "Because they better be."

 

Highlights courtesy of @armanbelding. Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com, Phil Steele's 2014 College Football Preview (purchase required) and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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