PITTSBURGH — Pitt is as old school as it gets in college football, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the university was founded in 1787.
While spread offenses are becoming the norm in college football rather than an anomaly — see Florida, Texas, Boise State and Oregon — Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt is winning the old-fashioned way. The Panthers throw the ball regularly and successfully, but the running game is right out of the days of Jim Brown.
Quarterback Bill Stull regularly lines up under center. There’s a big fullback, 260-pound Henry Hynoski, to open holes for freshman running back Dion Lewis, who has gained 1,291 yards. Some plays feature a pair of big tight ends as blockers, 265-pound Nate Byham and 230-pound Dorin Dickerson.
No gimmicks or gadgets here, only knock-’em-on-their-rears blocking schemes and conventional football wisdom: If our guys regularly run over your guys, we’re usually going to win.
“We’re probably one of the dinosaurs left, lining up with a fullback, a tailback and trying to pound people and play-action pass,” Wannstedt said.
It’s traditional power football, and No. 8 Pittsburgh (9-1, 5-0 in Big East) hopes it keeps working as it heads off to Morgantown on Friday for its annual Backyard Brawl game against West Virginia (7-3, 3-2).
Lewis is No. 4 nationally in rushing, averaging 129.1 yards per game, and Stull is No. 4 in passing efficiency with 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. It’s the kind of run-pass balance all teams would love to have, yet few do because the spread offenses often create a more wide-open style.
“We’re definitely in the minority with what we are doing here,” Wannstedt said. “There are very few college teams using a fullback like we use him. That’s one comment that we get after playing opponents, that their defensive coaches express to our coaches afterward, that they don’t see our offense week in and week out. Very few people are committed to it like we are. I believe in what we do.”
So do his players, some of whom — such as Hynoski — are recruited because they are exact fits for what Pitt is trying to do.
“We love the fact that we run the ball a lot, that we just strap it up and go pound the rock,” guard John Malecki said. “A lot of college teams are going to the option or spread, but we have a running back ranked among the nation’s best. And we do it without any trickery. We just pound the ball.”
Offensively, Pitt and West Virginia truly are centuries apart.
Pitt is very much a 20th century offense, with its blocking fullback and pro-style sets; among top 10 teams, only Alabama also regularly uses the fullback in the traditional role of a blocker.
“The tight ends love it, too, and our fullback, Henry, really loves to block,” Malecki said. “So when you put it all together, we have a great running game.”
West Virginia is very much 21st century, relying on a spread-’em-out system that was so successful for Rich Rodriguez — with the Mountaineers, of course, if not with Michigan. Quarterback Jarrett Brown is a threat to run or pass, and running back Noel Devine is No. 20 nationally with a 109.8 yards per game average.
One reason the spread offense is so popular is there are more athletic quarterbacks available to run them than there are traditional, drop-back style passers. Wannstedt has no plans to change, believing the Panthers’ system helps them land NFL-bound players; they’ve had two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick in the last three years.
Even the defensive players like Pitt’s system because they practice against it daily, a handy way to prepare for pro football.
“Going against our offense all training camp and in spring practice, it’s not finesse,” Wannstedt said.
Expect another run on Pitt players in April’s NFL draft.
“I know this: All the pro people that come in here and that I talk to, I get more questions about other teams, saying where do you think this guy would fit in? Where do you think he would play? Do you think he’s tough enough?” Wannstedt said. “They see our guys like Nate Byham. They know what he can do. They know what John Malecki can do. They see Dorin Dickerson. They come in and they can see our guys and can make a visual comparison to where they would fit in on their teams.”