To say Pitt's offense struggled against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Saturday is something of an understatement. The Panthers had no answer for the Hokies throughout the course of the 19-9 loss, and the stats from the game bear that out.
Pitt was 4-of-14 on third down. Tom Savage was sacked eight times (nine, if the sack on Pitt's two-point conversion attempt is counted). The offense gained 210 yards, just barely surpassing the meager 199 gained two weeks earlier against Virginia. Pitt's only touchdown came on a desperation drive in the final three minutes of the game.
The offensive ineffectiveness was obvious; what requires more attention is the matter of why Pitt's offense struggled so mightily against the Hokies.
"We got beat by a good team; absolutely, I think Virginia Tech's a good team," head coach Paul Chryst said after the game. "But there are plenty of things we can do to get better, and need to."
Among the things Pitt needs to do better are two of the most notable numbers from Saturday's game: third downs and sacks. Savage has been sacked 15 times in the last two games; those sacks have developed from a variety of sources, but the continued improvement of Pitt's inexperienced offensive line will go a long way in alleviating that issue.
The third downs are slightly more complicated. Pitt entered the Virginia Tech game with a 35% conversion rate on third downs this season, and that number dropped to 33.9% after a 4-of-14 performance in Blacksburg. A big reason the Panthers have struggled so much on third down has been the distance faced: against Virginia Tech, Pitt's average third-down distance was 10.8 yards. Six of the 14 third-down plays were on distances of 10 yards or more, and only four of the 14 were less than eight yards.
That followed a season-long trend, and Pitt enters the new week having faced an average third-down distance of 9.1 yards. With that kind of challenge on a play-by-play basis, it's no surprise that the Panthers have struggled so greatly on third downs.
Chryst even indicated after the game that Pitt's rushing attack has struggled due to the third downs, since the run game needs extended drives to find its rhythm. Against Virginia Tech, Pitt officially had 23 net yards rushing, although that number incorporates the 49 yards lost on sacks.
"I think it's third-down conversions: we need more kicks at the can," Chryst said. "We were able to run at some point (Saturday), but not consistently, and I think it's converting on third downs so you get another (series); that's where you get in a rhythm. When you don't convert on third down, you're out of rhythm.
"The beautiful thing about the running game is, you need everyone to be on their guy, and if you don't, you get some negative runs. And when you get into long situations, that makes it hard. It all goes hand-in-hand; we're behind the sticks quite a bit, and you lose some of your run game.
"So we need to do a better job of staying normal - or try to - with the sticks, and we've got to convert on third down. We've got to be better there."
The question remains: how can Pitt improve on third down?
The clearest answer is this: if the Panthers want to improve on third down, they need to get better on first down.
Against Virginia Tech, Pitt gained at least four yards eight times on 22 first downs, a number that falls well below the bar but was at least an improvement over the Virginia game, when the offense hit the four-yard mark on just four of 26 first downs.
The correlation between Pitt's success on first down and success on third down is striking. When the Panthers gain at least four yards on first down, they move the chains for a new series 89.3% of the time, a number that was hovering closer to 95% prior to the Virginia Tech game. Pitt has gained at least four yards on first down 66 times this season, and on 54 of those occasions - 81.8% - the Panthers didn't even face third down on that series.
Conversely, if Pitt fails to gain at least four yards on first down, the chance of gaining a fresh set of downs decreases significantly, from 89.3% to 45.1%.
With that in mind, Pitt has to get better on first down. After five games, the Panthers have gained at least four yards on just 48.2% of the first downs they have faced. Each coach probably has his own idea of what constitutes an effective first-down success rate, but anything sub-50% is hardly acceptable.
Of course, it's easier said than done to improve on first downs. The answer isn't as simple as running more or passing more, since Pitt has gained four yards or more on 50.6% of its first-down runs and 44.2% of its first-down passes (the overall run/pass split on first down is 62% run and 38% pass).
Somehow, though, Chryst and the coaching staff have to find a way to be more effective on first down, since an improvement there will likely lead to an overall improvement in the offense's ability to move the ball down the field.
"It comes down to us doing what we have to do," Savage said after Saturday's loss.
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