Football: Advance scouting No. 23 Pittsburgh


Daily file photo by Zach Laurence

Pat Fitzgerald coaches from the sideline. Fitzgerald's team will have its hands full against No. 23 Pittsburgh's potent offense in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Ben Pope, Senior Staffer


Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl will pit one of the nation’s most efficient red zone offenses against one of the nation’s stingiest red zone defenses.

No. 23 Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3 ACC) enters New York City boasting a dynamic and explosive offense that averaged 42.3 points per game this season. In wins over now-top 5 teams Penn State and Clemson, the Panthers simply outscored their favored opponents — 42-39 and 43-42, respectively.

If the Panthers had just scored a little more at timely points throughout the season, they could easily be 11-1 and in a far more high-profile bowl. Three of their four losses — to Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech — were decided by a combined 11 points, and Pittsburgh was tied or leading in the fourth quarter of all three.

Pittsburgh instead finds itself slated to play a Northwestern (6-6, 5-4 Big Ten) team that could prove a difficult matchup despite the Wildcats’ middling record.

Pittsburgh offense: The Panthers are 11th in the nation in points per game, despite sitting at 41st in yards per game, thanks to ruthless efficiency in scoring opportunities.

In 52 red zone visits, Pittsburgh has scored 48 times, including 43 touchdowns. Their overall scoring rate (92.3 percent) is the ninth best in the country, and their touchdown rate is the nation’s best.

Quarterback Nathan Peterman is fifth in the ACC with 26 passing touchdowns, but Pittsburgh’s offense is largely focused on the ground game. The Panthers ran the ball 510 times the year, throwing just 295 passes. Star running back James Conner rumbled for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns, and he added an additional 299 yards and four touchdowns catching passes out of the backfield.

NU senior defensive lineman C.J. Robbins recently praised Pittsburgh’s offensive schemes to ESPN, noting that the Panthers use a variety of pre-snap adjustments and shifts to distract the defense and perfect the play call.

Pittsburgh defense: Defensively, Pittsburgh was extremely unbalanced this season, shutting down opponents’ run games while frequently being shredded by opponents’ passing attacks.

The Panthers have been terrible defending the pass, allowing 343.1 passing yards per game, the second most in the country. It’s not a good sign when a defensive back leads the team in tackles, and defensive back Ryan Lewis (77 tackles) has done exactly that. Avonte Maddox, the cornerback on the other side, also struggled this season.

Up front, the Panthers are more stout. They are 14th in the nation in rush defense, allowing only 3.4 yards per carry.

That statistic is skewed somewhat by sacks, however. Led by dominant defensive end Ejuan Price, who tallied 12 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles, Pittsburgh is tied for 10th in the nation. Removing yards lost on sacks, opponents actually averaged a more respectable 4.6 yards per carry.

Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Can the Panthers’ offense maintain their efficiency against an NU defense well-suited to stop them?

The Cats allowed touchdowns on only 51 percent of opponent red zone opportunities this year, 18th best in the country.

Pittsburgh has faced only one other top 30 team in that category — Miami (13th) — and was dealt its most decisive loss of the season, losing 51-28 in a game in which it came away with only 7 points from three red zone opportunities.

If NU can continue its “bend-but-don’t-break” ways in the Pinstripe Bowl, it has a decent chance to frustrate Pittsburgh’s dangerous offense.

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