Pitt has now completed a third of the season and we are starting to get a feel for the team. As usual there are two ways to look at things.
On one hand you can look at the defense and say “Well dang, this is the best defense we’ve had since 2009, and probably the best coached defense we’ve had since the ’70’s. I think this team is going to be pretty good.” You could also say “The offense has been up and down but they’ve shown growth each week and they’ve got some upside. The arrow is pointing up for Pitt.”
On the other hand you can say “Well the Virginia game was a disaster, and Penn State probably isn’t as good as advertised. UCF hung 34 on us and now two of our top corners are hobbled (despite the fact that they are supposedly going to play against Delaware). Kenny Pickett has a ton of attempts and only three touchdowns, the running game is pretty much nonexistent, and we’ve only scored more than 20 points once so far…against an AAC defense. Despite the great win last week, I think we are still going to end up as a middling team.”
In both cases you wouldn’t be wrong, but before we make our final judgement, lets look at some numbers.
According to the computers, Pitt has improved year over year. Jeff Sagarin’s ranking algorithm had Pitt at #50 at the end of 2018. Pitt is currently ranked #36. That is quantifiable statistical improvement, but… Pitt needs to keep winning to maintain it.
Much of that is because of the defense. Against the fourth toughest schedule in the country, Pitt is currently ranked 48th in defensive yards per game (We are giving up 334). While that doesn’t sound all that great, it’s a tremendous improvement over last year. Pitt played a similarly tough schedule in 2018 (Sagarin ranked it as third toughest), and Pitt finished 75th in DYPG (We gave up 388). That’s a 50 YPG improvement YOY and it’s translating in to PPG as well. (We are giving up 5 PPG less this year than last year).
And it’s all coming from stopping the run.
Last year our opponents averaged 179 YPG against Pitt, an 4.9 YPC.
This year? 104 YGP and just 3.3 YPC. That’s good for 32nd in the country.
Credit the front seven.
And credit them for pressuring the quarterback and disrupting the backfield. Pitt ranks 4th nationally with 18 sacks, and 10th nationally with 34 Tackles for Loss You have to wonder how we’d rank if Weaver and Camp were healthy…
On the offensive side the script has been flipped. We are reasonably good at throwing the ball, but we often struggle to run it.
Pitt is 37th is passing yards per game (280). And that includes a 181 yard stinker against Virginia. Last year we finished 85th (209). None of this is surprising of course. Mark Whipple was hired to improve the passing game, and through four games he has for the most part delivered.
If you dig a little deeper though, you have to ask yourself how much has the passing game really improved? Yes, we no longer feel an impending sense of dread when Kenny Pickett drops back on third down, and he’s definitely shown he can move the sticks with his arm. That wasn’t the case last year. And yet somehow his stats are actually a tick worse…
Lets unpack this a little bit. Below is Pickett’s Game Log. I’ve added in each opponent’s passing defense rank. It’s not surprising to see that Pickett plays well against less talented secondaries, and he plays less well against more talented secondaries. The difference between this year and last year is that last year Pickett didn’t do well against the less talented secondaries. (Stanford for example).
I’ll also point out that Pickett has sustained only nine sacks this year in 176 drop backs. (Once every 19.6). Last year he was sacked 33 times in 310. (Once every 9.4). Credit to Dave Borbley for getting in inexperienced O-Line ready to play. You’d have to think they will continue to improve. That kind of protection will also help Pickett improve over time.
Looking ahead to the ACC schedule, we face only two teams that are better than Virginia at pass defense, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. You have to wonder if that’s because they are so bad at stopping the run. As for the rest of the group, Miami and UNC are rated highest in pass defense nationally. Miami is 51st, UNC is 59th.
Pitt’s rushing offense on the other hand, is still figuring out how to run the ball. We are 110th in total yards. We average 3.55 YPC and 114.5 YPG. That’s about half of the YPG we averaged last year. Ouch.
Still, we ran for 196 vs UCF, and we ran for 160 vs Ohio, which shows that when we commit to it, we have the ability to move the ball on the ground against less-than-elite competition. Delaware will be a great opportunity for Pitt to continue to work on the running game as we head into the meat of the ACC schedule.
Bringing it all together, the numbers say that Pitt has improved. Pitt is 83rd in total offense this year. Last year we ranked 94th. We have to hope that this improvement continues. If it does, we should be in for a good back half of the season. If we stagnate, it will be another up and down ride.
In the third phase, special teams have been uneven at best. Again the script has been flipped from last year. Kessman was solid last year. This year his placekicking troubles are well documented. Punter Kirk Christendoulou was terrible last year. This year he has been very good. The return game hasn’t done much so far, but it also hasn’t made too many costly mistakes. The kick coverage has been good. The punt coverage less so. Still, Pitt’s mistakes seem correctable, and lets hope they get corrected soon.
And so, after all of this, I’ll give you guys (and gals) the chance to revise your season predictions. We’ve got eight games to go, and we’ve played against the stiffest competition we will face all year (except for maybe Miami…and UNC-sigh). We are a game ahead of where many thought we would be at this piont (the consensus seemed to be 1-3), but can we keep it up? I think that there is a good chance that we can.
Here is the schedule:
And here are my predictions:
Delaware – W
Duke – W
Syracuse – W
Miami – L (They always have our number)
Georgia Tech – W
UNC – L (It’s a loss until it’s a win. Sorry folks)
Virginia Tech – W
Boston College – W
That puts us at 8-4, with a 5-3 conference record. Not stellar, but an improvement over last year, and a couple degrees better than the 6-6 many of us were predicting.
What do you think? Can Pitt win more than 8 games? Sound off!