*** Looks like DE Dewayne Hendrix will be out with a broken foot****
We are off to a good start of the season, at least in the win column, with a victory against a semi-strong FCS team. On Saturday we started slowly against a team who we should have come out strong and start pushing around right away. But Pitt doesn’t do that, especially with teams who are big underdogs.
I don’t know why exactly – but it really bothers me. I keep expecting to see a skilled and well-led team come out of the tunnels and instead I always watch a team that bumble around until the fans are angry enough to piss blood. Only then does Pitt play well enough for a semblance of happiness at the post-game tailgate.
But with that happiness Saturday came some real concern about what this team is capable of doing and what it actually will do. And deny it or not – some of those worry lines are due to the upcoming big Pitt vs Penn State game.
Put it this way – if Saturday’s 1st quarter Pitt team shows up we get our asses handed to us on PSU game day… if Saturday’s 4th quarter team shows up then we may win by that 4.5 point spread. A point spread that dropped like a rock after our tepid showing last week.
It isn’t gloom and doom – but it sure was a feeling of SOP during that first half the other day. Lots of shaking of heads and muttering up in the Press Box. That was because for 29+ minutes of play we had scored only 7 points against a FCS team. That isn’t good even if we were playing Ohio State or Alabama let alone the Wildcats of the City of Brotherly Love.
But if you took the time to really watch what happened out there – then watched as much video of the game as you could you’ll see that not only did our defense carry the day but it threw a shutout by not giving up and offensive scores on Villanova’s part. It played well over all and that is good because we’ll need that to happen consistently.
Aside from two big runs by the Wildcat’s QB – one on the first play of the game that stunned the crowd – we held them well enough for them to get only 53 net yards on the ground. However we tried to match that mediocrity with our feeble rushing attempts which got us only 86 net yards.
Look, when you hold the other team to a total of 172 yards then it was a good defensive day – and it was.
So for all that we come to the Monday morning QB’s 3&3’s. Three points to talk about what went well and three points to talk about where we dropped the ball (literally in one case Saturday):
One – I have to go with our defense on this one. They played very well as the day went on. All those points mentioned above were good but lets take a look at some things that aren’t so obvious.
LB Mike Caprara and DE Ejuan Price teamed up for a sack and those two also had solos to their credit. Caprara, while not real fast, is becoming a very good LB in that he takes a great line to the ball. DB Maddox provided the other two for that total of six – but we were in their backfield a lot more than that.
I thought it interesting that when being interview after the game Caprara was asked if we blitzed a lot more during this games then in matches last season and he said “No”. It sure did seem like it from where I sat in the press box though.
Two – Our two receivers TE Scott Orndoff’s and WR Jester Weah’s contributions. I have been mentioning Orndoff’s name in this capacity all during the off-season because he did well as a receiver last season also. Against Villanova he caught five passes for 98 yards and led the team. He’s much quicker off the LOS than you’d think for a kid who is 6’5″ and 225 lbs. and on his 19 yard reception he got some nice yards after the catch with his strength.
Weah was the big question mark coming into the game due to his self-confessed case of the yips when trying to catch the ball. We have been hearing about his better play in every interview during the fall camp and I, along with other fans, was wondering if this was the year his actual gameday play would catch up to the positive reviews he was getting from the coaching staff.
First reviews on his play are very positive as he caught four passes for 38 yards and a 16 yard TD. He looked like a veteran out there and used his speed to get open on a deep route that was incomplete by a poorly thrown pass – but he had his defender beat by a good three yards.
Three – James Conner’s return to football. It was so very nice to see the excitement on everyone’s part when Conner came running out of the tunnel. We knew it was going to happen and it did. However, the actual game playing unfolded just as I thought it would – he was rusty, as expected, and it showed in his play.
His rushing numbers are pretty poor but that was true across the board for all of our running backs. A porous and ineffective offensive line didn’t help an iota in that regard, but it was evident that Conner was not 100% the Beast Mode running back we know. But he will be; it just wasn’t happening in that respect on Saturday.
His TD run was a blast from the past however as he was typical James Conner in getting to the edge quickly then manhandling the defender with a stiff arm take-down while he crossed the goal line. That was the play that reminded me of the old Conner, not the two plays where he picked up eight or nine yards up the middle by bouncing off people.
Those were nice but he countered them with some unneeded dancing around behind the LOS and by being brought down by arm tackles – something we didn’t see at all in 2014 or the game last season.
I believe Conner’s play relies on instinct and muscle memory – Big Cat animalistic if you will and that wasn’t happening. He was tentative, even on those bull runs he started off slowly, and it was evident that he wasn’t real comfortable out there yet.
Note the “yet” because that will shake off in practice this week – at least the mental part will. I have no idea what he is like physically compared to 2014 but can say that when I looked at him closely he looked a bit thinner than he was then. I think he lost some muscle with his cancer battle.
Well, I just looked it up, and in the 2104 season he was 250 lbs, last year at 240 and now he’s at 235. I guess because we didn’t have much chance to see him last season at all the 15 pound difference looks more dramatic. He needs some home cooking I think.
Overall he finished out the day with 17 carries for 53 yards at a paltry 3.1 yards per carry, way down from his 2014 mark of 5.9, and one TD and a long run of nine yards. But as referenced above he got virtually no help from our OL. Even as good and strong as Conner is he still needs holes at the LOS to run through.
He caught a TD pass also. Let’s talk about that last part folks.
We heard Pat Narduzzi say more than once that Conner would be split out as a receiver and Receivers coach Kevin Sherman talked about that at the open Media Day also when oi sat down with him. But I was somewhat skeptical as we hadn’t seen that before (at least to my recollection). But he was on a handful of plays.
The TD pass he caught was on a wheel route out of the backfield so he wasn’t a ‘receiver’ per se on that play but he was on others and caught two more passes while doing it. A few times he lined up in the slot while Ollison was the halfback. That is a nice twist to the offense by our Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada.
One – Our offensive line. Where to start with this one? Honestly, I have not seen OL play that terrible, and that is the word for it, since we were last in the nation in sacks allowed back in 2011. It was that painful to watch.
Here is why. QB Nate Peterman (more on his play later!) wasn’t sacked all that much, only once actually, but he was either running for his life or trying to field very poor snaps from our Center Alex Officer. I mean really bad snaps too. That was one drawback to the offense, the other was just plain bad play on the OL’s part.
Consider this. Villanova, a FCS team mind you, had seven tackles for loss against our supposedly great OL. That is horrid and six of those were our RBs getting dropped behind the LOS. As said above Conner’s first two carries were losses – something I can’t remember happening twice in whole games before.
Every RB, and the QB, who touched the ball lost yardage at some point in the game. Three times that happened on 3rd and short yardage with one being a Conner carry. Our 3rd down plays were terrible across the board though as we only converted six of 15 tries for a 40% success rate.
BTW – here are the official stats if you want to read them.
Two: Nate Peterman’s play at QB. I’ll put this up in the negative column just because I expected more from him after a full fall camp under his belt. If you remember during last year’s camp he was splitting reps with Voytik but this year was a different story.
So even with a different offensive coordinator he should have been more polished out there. Now, I don’t go along with some fans’ opinions that he played as poorly Saturday as he did against Miami and Navy at the end of last season – that just isn’t true. First off he threw for only two TDs and had four INTs in those losses. Saturday he had two TDs vice no INTs in a 21 point win so that’s that. But even looking at his below par for him stats showed his QB rating to be 126 on the game which is about the average for a college QB.
But his play overall was disappointing. There is that word again. He went 19 for 32 (54%) for two TDs and no INTs. However, two key indicators of how well a QB is producing in the passing game – yard per pass (YPP) and yards per reception (YPR) were way below what is necessary to win games against the better opponents.
On average when he passed the ball yesterday we moved forward 5.3 yards. When the a receivers his passes it averaged out to a little better (relatively) 9.2 yards. Both on the south side of the ‘good play’ line.
To put that in perspective of what we saw him do last season; he was 44th in the nation in passing efficiency with a 138.6 rating and a YPP of 7.3 and a YPR of 11.8 – way better than Saturday.
As I said he didn’t play all that well but I believe we also have to factor in some just horrendous center snaps (at least six) and five drops by his receivers – and four of those were passed right on the money. I’m going to quote a commenter, Damage Inc., who hit the nail on the head about the poor snaps:
A bad snap throws off the quarterback’s timing, whether that’s getting to the handoff point or going through passing reads. Once it happens a couple of times, the QB has to put more concentration on just tracking and catching the snap, which puts him behind in timing. On an ideal short to mid-range pass play, the pass leaves the QB’s hands in less than 2.5 seconds. If you bobble a snap or have to adjust to catch it, half that ideal time is already gone and the QB hasn’t even started his reads.
That doesn’t absolve Peterman from a sub par game or the receivers from multiple drops, but the fundamental aspect of hiking the ball should not be an issue for a college team, much less a Power-5 team.
Couldn’t have said it better myself so I didn’t. Thanks – that BTW was from an excellent comment posted to yesterday’s podcast piece – thanks for that Damage, Inc.
I do think that if those snaps were accurate and those four drops didn’t happen we’d feel a bit better about Peterman but the bottom line is that aside from two TDs passes (one nice 16 yarder to Weah while rolling out) he didn’t contribute much to the win. QBs are supposed to do just that, lead the team to wins by their play. He played down to the opponent’s level and that shouldn’t happen again, especially to a team we should be passing with success against.
I expect better from him and we’ll see that happen but it didn’t this game.
Three: Kicker Chris Blewitt’s inefficient leg. He missed both his attempts on Saturday – one 39 yard try went wide left and the other 47 yarder was blocked. If you watch the reply of the blocked kick you’ll see that the Villanova DL didn’t get any penetration at all – they were stood up at the LOS as the OL is supposed to do. Blewitt kicked a line drive straight into the jumping defender’s hands. No bad snap, no bad handle by the holder – just a line drive vice getting immediate lift on the ball.
I picked this issue because after watching the offense yesterday I think we are going to be in a lot of close games this season. That’s what happens when your defense plays well and the offense not so well – you get games that are determined by seven points or less.
The majority of those games, to be won, rely on efficiency in offensive series by coming away with points at the end of them. We had 14 series Saturday and scored on four of them – that is a 28% scoring clip and will not be acceptable against the better teams on the schedule.
I have to look at this game and think that because of the change in offensive coordinators there were problems that will be worked out. That happens sometimes and we saw it writ large against Villanova. I do think the offense will smooth things out but that might have to come from a reshuffling of the OL.
One of the things I mentioned yesterday, and have in writing also, that I was a bit wary of all the hype the OL was getting and it seem to spring from the fact that the five starter’s had 98 games experience between them. hey – that almost two years per kid. But the fact is that we lost a lot of games over these kid’s career at OL and the sad fact is that each of them also played poorly at times during that period.
Not to be a total negative guy but I was pretty surprised no one in the media mentioned that at all – but that is the nature of professional sport writing, optimism must rule the day. So I wonder, given the same personnel, just how much better the OL is going to be against a stout opponent next week.
My final impression of Saturday is this. That game left a bit of a sour taste in fan’s mouths because we were expecting so much better play out there, especially on the offensive side of the ball. If you are saying you didn’t have that feeling while watching that game I think you are trying to kid yourself.
A 21 point win looks great on paper and that is fine but what happens over the course of a football season is that your team gets better each week or it falters. I know I’m not betting on that Pitt-PSU game. Not after what I watched happen Saturday.
I do truly believe that many Pitt fans still harbor some doubts about Pat Narduzzi’s ability to win against stronger opponents – simply because he hasn’t done that as a head coach yet. But here is something to contemplate. Every fan I talk with thinks we totally blew those last two games of the season last year and we did. We were under prepared in almost every way to play our opponent’s on gameday and that happened again, especially in the 1st half, against a FCS school in Villanova. That is nervous making to me and to others.
I’ll say right now that Pat Narduzzi needs to beat PSU on Saturday to dispel any doubts about his competency under pressure. If he doesn’t do that then Katy bar the door because Pitt fans can turn ugly at the drop of a hat.
He needs a win against a good opponent and let’s not kid ourselves – those PSU players and their fans want to beat us as much as we want to beat them. I think he pulls it out in a close win – formal predictions toward the end of the week – but he won’t do that if they play anything like they did on Saturday. Yes, including the defense, because Penn State isn’t Villanova.
I just got an email with a pitch to get people to pony up their money in a nice way… here is a copy of the Pitt Panther Club “Invitation” to join their group. All I could think of was that 1) this should go out to Pitt fans after a big win and 2) we haven’t had one of those yet with Coach Narduzzi so Pitt took the easy choice and sent it out after any win.
Look – I joke about this a lot but the Panther Club really does do good things and the members I know love it.
For IMMEDIATE Release
September 4, 2016
Pitt-Penn State to be Nationally Televised by ESPN
The game will have a noon kickoff at Heinz Field.
PITTSBURGH—The highly anticipated renewal of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry on September 10 will be nationally televised by ESPN, the network announced.
The game, played at Heinz Field, will kick off at noon. The ESPN broadcast crew will consist of Bob Wischusen (play-by-play), Brock Huard (analyst) and Allison Williams (reporter).
2016 Pitt Football Weekly Media Planner
Penn State Week
Pat Narduzzi Press Conference Noon
Open Practice Window 9:05-9:35 a.m.
Select Assistant Coach/Player Interviews 11:30 a.m.
Open Practice Window 9:20-9:50 a.m.
Select Assistant Coach/Player Interviews 11:30 a.m.
Pat Narduzzi on ACC Call 12:10 p.m.
Transcripts and audio files available on www.theACC.com.
Pat Narduzzi Final Press Briefing 1 p.m.
Thursday practice is closed.
No scheduled media availability.
Pitt vs. Penn State (ABC or ESPN) Noon