PITTSBURGH (AP) Oklahoma State’s offensive playbook can get complex. It just didn’t look that way last year when the Cowboys faced Pittsburgh.
The game plan during a taut 45-38 victory over the Panthers seemed to be pretty simple: send wide receiver James Washington deep, have Mason Rudolph chuck it as far as he can and see what happens. It worked beautifully. Rudolph threw for a school-record 540 yards, 296 of them to Washington, the second-highest single-game total in the FBS in 2016.
It was enough for Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi to know he’d seen enough, though another eyeful awaits Saturday when the Panthers (1-1) welcome Washington, Rudolph and the rest of the ninth-ranked Cowboys (2-0) to Heinz Field on Saturday.
”James Washington is a different animal,” Narduzzi said with a laugh. ”He’s a first-round draft choice next year. I was voting for him to come out last year.”
Instead Narduzzi and the Pitt defensive coaching staff spent the week trying to come up with a way to slow down an offense averaging 51.5 points a game, a total the Cowboys have racked up in a hurry. Oklahoma State is 10th in the nation in scoring, despite ranking 101st in time of possession (26:42).
”It ain’t fun, but it’s fun,” said Panthers cornerback Avonte Maddox, who found himself one-on-one with Washington repeatedly last September. ”They get the ball hiked in 22 seconds and they come back and hike it in nine. You’ve got to get ready to get moving. Once you make a play, you have to get home and be ready to make the next play.”
The problem for the Panthers is that Washington is hardly a one-man show. In 6-foot-4 Marcell Ateman and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, the Cowboys have big-play targets all over the field. Washington, Ateman and Johnson all have at least one reception of 40 yards are more through the first two weeks.
”We have so many guys that are just as good as I am, and when you have that many guys, you can throw it anywhere at any time,” Washington said. ”They’ve been making pays and showing up out there, so it’s been helpful.”
Pitt’s long afternoon in Stillwater was symptomatic of a season in which the Panthers finished 127th in the country – out of 128 teams – against the pass. The secondary has looked improved so far, keeping Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley in check during a loss to the Nittany Lions last week, a setback that looked far closer on the field than the 33-14 final would indicate.
Another chance at a top 10 upset looms. Some things to look for as the Cowboys look to wrap up a perfect nonconference schedule for the seventh time under Gundy.
ROAD WARRIORS: Oklahoma State has grown pretty comfortable playing away from Boone Pickens Stadium. The Cowboys are 11-2 in their last 13 true road games.
”One of the big things though is that we have a quarterback that has been here for a long time,” Gundy said. ”In my opinion, that gives you a chance to play well on the road.”
Rudolph’s only real issue away from home is accuracy. He’s thrown 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in road games during his career, compared to 37 touchdowns and four picks in Stillwater.
QB QUANDRY? Pitt’s offense has yet to catch fire under graduate transfer Max Browne, but Narduzzi has no plans to go to backup Ben DiNucci. Browne is averaging just 7.7 yards per completion while relying heavily on screens and shovel passes. Narduzzi challenged the Panthers wide receivers to win more 50/50 battles to give Browne some help.
”We’re close to some more explosive plays,” Narduzzi said. ”And that’s all you can look for.”
SACK ATTACK: The Cowboys have rolled up five sacks and 18 tackles for losses. That will be an issue for the Panthers, who have allowed eight sacks through two games. Pitt will have right guard Alex Bookser back in the lineup. The senior was suspended for the first two games following his offseason DUI arrest. Regardless of who lines up in front of Browne, protecting him is a major priority.
”We’ve given up too many sacks,” Narduzzi said. ”Something’s got to change there.”
READY TO RUN: Oklahoma State doesn’t just air it out. The Cowboys like to get the ground game going too. Justice Hill, J.D. King and LD Brown all have over 100 yards through two games. If Oklahoma State gets a lead, the Cowboys are confident they can grind it out if necessary.
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