Bowl week is here, and I’ll trust you’ve had a fine Christmas if Christmas is the holiday you celebrate, or a fine few days off if it’s not.
Either way, it’s time to get back to football, and for all the rah-rah I’ve been dispensing of late, I’ve decided to strike a decidedly more sober tone leading up the bowl game.
The reason is because I’m not sure we can win.
The Stanford Cardinal is a good football team, people. Sure you can look at the fact that Stanford lost four games, and the fact that their best running back is sitting this one out, and the fact that Stanford has the 120th ranked passing defense and convince yourself that we can match up pretty well against them. But if you look a little deeper you’ll see that Stanford is an immensely talented team that caught a few bad breaks during the season, and they have the horses to beat Pitt badly.
But before we get into that, lets look back at Pitt’s Sun Bowl History. If you haven’t read the excellent Brian Batko piece on the 2008 Sun Bowl, you should. Batko’s piece gives you a peek behind the curtain of what can go wrong with these bowl games. From players running amok early in the week (hopefully not a problem under Narduzzi) to bonehead game planning (historically a problem under Narduzzi) to lack of ability to adjust (most definitely a problem under Narduzzi).
Second, there is Pat Narduzzi’s bowl history. Naruzzi’s 0-2 bowl game record is well-publicized. First there was a blowout loss to Navy in 2015, and then the loss to a very beatable Northwestern team in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl. Only two data points, to be sure, but it’s all we have to go on. So far this coaching staff not shown that they know how to prepare the team to win in the postseason, and I won’t believe they can do it until they show me.
Thirdly, there is the talent. If you trust Rivals.com, then its clear that Stanford is loaded and Pitt is outclassed.
From 2014 – 2018 Stanford has posted the following Rivals.com recruiting ranks: 14, 18, 19, 19 and 57. That is an average class rank of 27, and it would be top-20 without that abysmal 2018 ranking. What’s more, Stanford has recruited no less than 37 four-and-five star recruits during that time period. That is nearly enough for a two-deep. And just in case you thought the 57th ranked 2018 class was a sign of drop-off, this year’s early signing class is ranked 20th. Sure there has likely been some attrition over the years (there always is), but its safe to say there is a good base of talent for Stanford head coach David Shaw to work with.
Meanwhile, our Pitt Panthers have posted Rivals.com recruiting ranks of 44, 65, 29, 38 and 36 during 2014 – 2018. That’s for an average class rank of 44. Pitt has recruited 15 four-star recruits during that time period. That is less than half of Stanford’s total. Of the 15 four-star recruits we’ve recruited, seven of them are still on the team. Two of the seven do not figure to make an impact in the Sun Bowl game (Freshman RB Mychale Salahuddin and 2nd-string rs Frosh RB AJ Davis). That leaves five four-star recruits (at most) that could potentially contribute.
Peeling the onion skin back, we see that Stanford’s offense is led by four-star Junior Quarterback KJ Costello and Wide Receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a three-star recruit whose other major offers were Pitt, Michigan State, Wake Forest, Virginia, Maryland and App State (I believe Pitt was a finalist for his services in 2015). This season is Arcega-Whiteside’s senior year, and he has developed past his three-star status nicely, having posted 969 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. I may get shouted down for blasphemy but I’d like to point out that those are close to Larry Fitzgerald numbers folks. Granted they are freshman-year Larry Fitzgerald numbers…but the point is that Whiteside is legit FBS talent.
QB KJ Costello has put the ball up nearly 400 times this year, and has thrown for 3400 yards. He’s completed two-thirds of his passes and has tossed 29 TD’s. Costello is consistently productive. He’s thrown for less than 300 yards just four times in 12 games. The four teams that held Costello under 300 yards were USC, Notre Dame, Cal (rivalry game), and inexplicably UC Davis. Costello posted his lowest adjusted QBR of the year against UC Davis and my completely uninformed opinion is that Costello enjoyed a night out with his friends before taking on the only cupcake in their schedule.
Assuming he Costello doesn’t party it up with his teammates in Juarez the night before the Sun Bowl, its a safe bet to think that he will carve up a Pitt passing defense that finished the regular season ranked 73rd in the country.
The weapons Costello will use will be his top WR (Arcega-Whiteside) and his two excellent Tight Ends.
As I mentioned earlier, Arcega-Whiteside is a beast, and unless he breaks his leg he’ll likely eclipse 1000 yards for the season and probably catch two more touchdowns, which would give him 16 for the season.
The Tight Ends meanwhile have combined for oh just 1111 receiving yards and 9 TD’s. They are both four-star talents, and they average 6′-6″, 246 lbs. Shawn Watson should take note. This is how you use the Tight End in a pro-style offense.
Junior Tight End Kaden Smith has caught 47 balls for 635 yards. That was in 9 games. Smith is apparently injured and is a game-week decision for the Sun Bowl, and he is backed up by 6-7 Sophomore Colby Parkinson who has 27 receptions for 476 yards and 7 (count ’em 7) TD’s on the season. Considering our tallest LB or Defensive back is 6′ 2″ it is unlikely that Pitt will have an answer for either one of these guys.
On the other side of the ball, Stanford posts a respectable 38th ranked rushing defense. The’ve held opposing teams to 3.9 YPC on the season, and 1491 yards. That is just 0.2 YPC and 91 yards more than Notre Dame, so the Stanford front seven aren’t going to be pushovers. If there is one thing going in our favor it’s that three of the four teams that have beaten the Cardinal have successfully pounded the rock. Utah, Notre Dame and Washington each posted 43 or more rushing attempts and ran for 177 or more yards. Stanford has given up just 22 rushing first downs in the last three games, but they have given up some yardage so there is a possibility that Pitt could exploit the Stanford run D. There is an equal possibility that with two weeks to prepare and get healthy, Stanford shuts down a one-dimensional Pitt team.
Which brings us to The Cardinal’s achilles heel. Their passing defense. It is ranked 120th in the country and there are only 10 teams behind them. On the surface that 120 ranking makes our 73rd ranked unit look like a bunch of All Americans back there. But lets dive a little deeper.
Closer inspection reveals that Stanford has played solid pass defense in seven of their 12 games. Stanford has given up 300+ yards just four times this season, and they also gave up 278 and 4 TD’s to Notre Dame. So Stanford has had 5 “bad” pass defense games this year. Below are the passing ranks of the four teams that threw on Stanford.
Oregon: 51 (346)
Notre Dame: 36 (278, 4 TD’s)
Arizona State: 53 (353)
Washington State: 2 (438)
UCLA: 68 (466 – New HC in 2018 and averaged 289 passing YPG over their last 5 games)
Want more proof that Stanford’s pass defense is not as bad as advertised? Stanford gave up an average of 202 passing yards and less than 1 TD per game (.85 to be exact) against the 7 other teams on their schedule.
Pitt’s passing game ranks 121st. We have thrown for over 300 yards exactly once – against Wake Forest. Yes, that Wake Forest passing defense was ranked 119 (and remember Stanford is 120), so for those of you who want to hold out hope that Pickett finds his groove, by all means hold it out. Wake gave up eight 280+ yard passing games and Wake’s roster is chock-full of two-and-three star recruits. Odds are that Stanford plays decent against our bottom-of-the-barrel passing game and Pitt QB Kenny Pickett will post a very Pickett-esque stat line. He’ll probably throw for around 150 yards passing with no TD’s, and I’m not sure if that will be enough to win.
So to wrap it all up, there are a lot of factors working against Pitt in this game. In fairness, Pitt’s Sun bowl history is not an indicator of how they will perform this year and should simply be considered a bad omen. Narduzzi’s bowl coaching record, on the other hand, is something tangible and concerning. Additionally, Stanford has a ton of four star talent that Pitt just can not match. Has Narduzzi successfully “coached ’em up”? We’ll see but the results against top-tier teams this year have not been encouraging. Last but not least the factors that appear to be in our favor, specifically Stanford’s defensive statistics, are not nearly as favorable as you’d think if you take the time to look a little closer. Stanford can stop the run against solid teams, and they can most certainly defend the pass against mediocre teams. If they are up to the task, the results for Pitt could be disastrous.
Sorry folks I wish I could strike a cheerier tone, but I’m not going to be bamboozled. Narduzzi is always going to talk the talk; I’m just not convinced he can walk the walk, at least this time. The Nard-Dawg loses yet another bowl game, and it’s probably not going to be close. Stanford 41, Pitt 28.
Hail to Pitt and please feel free to prove me wrong.