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Pitt notebook: Line of scrimmage focus vs. Georgia Tech

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt’s Qadree Ollison break through a Penn State hole for a first down Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Coach Pat Narduzzi has made repeated comments this week about Pitt’s ability to run the football against Penn State — in the first half.

Yes, Pitt ran for 214 yards before intermission. But the game devolved, from the Panthers’ perspective, into a Penn State 51-6 romp when the teams returned to the field.

• Pitt running back Qadree Ollison ran for 125 yards in the first half. He ended up with 119.

• Quarterback Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked in the first half. Penn State floored him four times after that.

• And, of course, Pitt was scoreless after halftime for the second consecutive game.

Regaining control of the line of scrimmage will be the goal of Pitt’s offense Saturday against Georgia Tech at Heinz Field when the Panthers open ACC play. Jimmy Morrissey will be at the center of that quest, looking to make amends.

“Even when we scored, there were a a lot of mistakes,” said Morrissey, a sophomore center who shouldered much of the blame for the offensive meltdown. “Simple, Day 1 mistakes that we made.

“Our communication lacked, and that started with me making bad ID calls on linebackers and giving the wrong calls out to my tackles.”

Even perfect execution might not have been enough for Pitt to defeat No. 11 Penn State, but self-inflicted damage made the job impossible.

“Coach (Shawn) Watson (offensive coordinator) said we played two teams: ourselves and Penn State,” Morrissey said. “And we couldn’t beat ourselves. If you can’t beat yourself, you can’t beat the other team.

“I thought we were prepared. We didn’t play like it. Our attention to detail has to be a lot higher (against Georgia Tech), especially with an odd defense.”

Georgia Tech plays a 3-4 defensive alignment, a front Morrissey said he confronted only once last year against Virginia.

His main target will be nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson, a 6-foot-1, 298-pound senior.

“Big dude,” Morrissey said, “probably the heaviest D-lineman I’ve gone against so far this season, but I’m ready for it. He makes it tough for the center to get off if the center wants to get off to the second level.”

Morrissey, 6-3, 300, said he welcomes the challenge.

”I enjoy odd defenses. I have a guy over me all the time.”

He’s an eye witness

When tight ends coach Tim Salem revealed that he sleeps in his office and often doesn’t go home for days at a time, Morrissey said he wasn’t surprised.

He said assistant coaches routinely get in the office at 5 a.m. and are working long past dark.

“When I come back from a 9 o’clock class to watch film,” he said, “Borbs (line coach Dave Borbely) will be here all the time.”

Morrissey said he walked by Salem’s office late one night, and there was a sign on the door: “Sleeping. Don’t come in.”

“For the cleaning crew,” he said.

“They put in a lot of tough work. But it makes me appreciate them a lot more when I see what they do.”

Nothing special

Pitt wasn’t the only team to struggle on special teams last week.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson was upset that his team allowed South Florida to return two first-quarter kickoffs for touchdowns (98 and 97 yards) in a 49-38 loss.

“Yeah, we spend a lot of time on kick coverage,” he said. “Sometimes if you watch us, you wouldn’t know it. But last week was disappointing and partly our fault as coaches. We had five or six freshmen out there on that kickoff team, which wasn’t very smart. I should have just took them off myself. We won’t have that problem again. They might return one on us, but it won’t be against five or six freshmen. I can promise you that.”

A new NCAA rules allows returners to signal for a fair catch. Asked about it, Johnson took the opportunity to take another shot at his special teams.

“Shoot, if I was playing us, I wouldn’t use it, I’d return every one of them.”

Fighting a learning curve

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi wasn’t happy with his team’s five kickoff returns against Penn State. Two were returned for 12 and 11 yards by Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Maurice Ffrench, who fair-caught two others to give Pitt possession on the 25-yard line.

“You take it for granted sometimes as coaches,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t do a good job of detailing that whole thing out, what to do.

“It was poor decision-making on our part and bad coaching, in my opinion, on how we did return, how we did talk about fair-catching the ball.

“Obviously our returner was confused. There’s a learning curve to it. That curve hit us Saturday night in the second half. It will never hit us again.”

There also was an illegal block penalty on another return, forcing Pitt to start at its 8 while trailing 21-6 in the third quarter.

Painful penalties

Speaking on the ACC coaches conference call Wednesday, Narduzzi had an interesting way of describing two third-down penalties by defensive end Patrick Jones that kept Penn State scoring drives alive.

He said it was like “taking a knife, stabbing it in your chest, twisting it around.”

“He has two where he is hitting the quarterback, and we have third-down stoppers. It’s a face mask or it’s a late hit on the quarterback. You got to be kidding me. Threw an incomplete pass. It’s first down for them again.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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