The Quick Lane bowl is right around the corner, and for the first time in a while Pitt has a legit chance to take home some December hardware. Yes it’s Quick Lane Bowl hardware, but damn it, it’s hardware nonetheless, and outside of that Coastal Division championship last season, the trophy case is looking a little bare. Plus, all grumbling aside, a win in Detroit will feel better than a loss anywhere else, so kudos to Heather for getting us into a winnable game. (I suppose…)
Speaking of winnable games, I wanted to do a season recap, and so I took a look back at the pre-season preview and prediction thread that I wrote on August 23rd. Now is as good a time as any to go back and see how we did.
August predictions are in italics. I started with the offense.
On offense, we return two Receivers that posted 500 yards in our lovely 120th ranked passing offense. That has to count for something. I was speaking of Ffrench and Mack of course. And as predicted, both shouldered the load, and more than doubled their reception totals. Ffrench went from 35 to 84. Mack went from 25 to 62. Yardage increases were not as impressive. French increased from 515 to 685. Mack from 557 to 711. The result of all that volume underneath (and horizontally): Both of them got hurt. Ffrench missed the last three games with broken jaw. Mack was seen in a walking boot a little more than midway into the season, and he clearly wasn’t in the same guy during the last four games. The silver lining I suppose is that the inuries gave Shockey and Wayne the opportunity to step up, and gives them something to build on for next year, but I think we may have beaten BC if Frrench was healthy or Mack was in early season form.
The Tight End position simply can’t be any worse than last year, even though that is a small bar to clear. Maybe the reason that Watson didn’t throw to the tight ends was because he knew none of them could catch. Without any actual data in front of me, I’d estimate that Gragg and Griffin-Stewart dropped twenty balls between them over twelve games. And yet somehow they still managed to come down with 35 receptions for 316 yards. As bad this all sounds, it is still an improvement over last year. Heck, they even scored a touchdown. If Whipple manages to stick around long enough to get an actual pass-catching Tight End on the roster, we’re potentially looking at a fifty-catch, 500 yard, five touchdown situation. Note that I said “if”.
Our Center is primed for an all-ACC season, and if there is one position on the offensive line that can lift the rest out of mediocrity, it is the Center. Morrissey was voted first team all-ACC. I would say that he probably had a hand in lifting the rest of the to mediocrity, but there isn’t a Pitt fan alive who can say that he lifted them above it. Pitt finished roughly 96th in run blocking (line yards), and 54th in pass blocking (sack rate). They only thing they did well was protect Pickett on passing downs, and thank God they did because otherwise our offense would have been really bad – instead of just bad. (They finished 24th in “pass down sack rate”). Overall though, the line was average at best, and I think most fans would agree it was below average.
Running back is also a concern, since we graduated two 1000 yard rushers and have nothing but an unproven stable of backs to replace them. Although I believe that if the offensive line can open the holes, Pitt will find someone to run through them. Well, we did find someone to run through them, sort of. AJ Davis was okay (4.2 YPC). Vincent Davis was better (5.3). Todd Sibley averaged five yards per carry…when he was healthy. There was a lot of hype around V’Lique Carter during the fall, but Andre Powell sagely advised us that “no, he’s not going to win the Heisman”. And he was right. Carter averaged 3.7 yards per carry. He did catch 16 balls for 173 yards though, and his two receiving touchdowns were instrumental in both the Delaware and Duke wins.
And most importantly, our Quarterback has a year of seasoning under his belt. He is older. He is wiser. Time will tell if he takes the leap that we need him to take. Ahh the optimism of August. Back when Mark Whipple was a quarterback whisperer who was going to magically transform Kenny Pickett into the second coming of Tyler Palko. Well maybe that will happen in year two. Through 12 games (actually 11 because Kenny sat out the Delaware game with an injury), Pickett has thrown 120 more passes than he did in 14 games last year. But…he’s thrown two less touchdowns and three more interceptions. I guess you could argue that his INT / ATT ratio is down, but his TD / ATT ratio is WAY down, and well that’s a big reason why Pitt won only seven games. Think about it this way: If Pickett had thrown just one more touchdown in every game, he’d have thrown 22 touchdowns vs 9 INT’s. Still not great, but a heck of a lot better than 10/9, and given that we lost three of our five losses by a touchdown or less…
On defense our secondary, for the first time in a long time, is projected to be strength. I was right. Our secondary ranks 21st in passing yards allowed, and I think it’s even higher in Quarterback Rating Allowed (although I don’t have access to those stats).
Our defensive tackles run three deep with Keyshon Camp coming back off of injury, Jaylen Twyman completely transforming has body and drawing rave reviews this fall, and Amir Watts returning from injury as the spiritual leader of the locker room. Watts had his best year and was named honorable mention all-ACC. Twyman was voted second team all-American by three different publications. Camp was injured…again.
The loss of Defensive End Rashad Weaver, of course, is the exception. He was expected to be one of the best pass rushers in the ACC., and despite what you are hearing out of camp, Weaver will not be easily replaced. And yet Pitt managed to replace them. Weaver was replaced by a combination of Deslin Alexandre + Habakuk Baldonaldo. Together they totaled 9.5 sacks. On the other side, Patrick Jones notched 8.5 all by himself.
The linebackers are another question mark. The middle will be solid if unspectacular. Reynolds and Brighwell have both been to combat, but I don’t think anyone classifies them as elite. The Money linebacker should be an upgrade. Florida transfer Kylan Johnson bring athleticism and motivation. Redshirt Junior Chase Pine brings athleticism and size. Has he matured mentally enough to make an impact? The star linebacker is more of a question mark, and reading between the lines of the camp reports, it may even be a concern. Pitt is forced to choose between youth and inexperience. Cam Bright has been a linebacker since he came to Pitt, but he’s just a redshirt Sophomore. Phil Campbell has been in the program for four years, but he’s a converted Safety. There will be growing pains on the outside… I was wrong here. Except for maybe in the middle where Brightwell was…solid if unspectacular. Kylan Johnson was a force at Money. Cam Bright and Phil Campbell combined to put up borderline all-American numbers out of the Star position. (Again, you need to assume they didn’t see the field at the same time and combine their stats.)
Special teams will likely be a mixed bag. Kicker Alex Kessman is seasoned, and he has a strong leg, but Pitt is breaking in a new holder. Reports indicate that it will be Aussie Punter Kirk Christodoulou. Has he improved his holding ability since his inauspicious debut last year against Penn State? We can hope he has. The Aussie was fine as a holder, less fine as a punter.
The return game should be strong with Maurice Ffrench handling both punt and kick return duties. He was named preseason first team all-ACC this season. Lets hope he stays healthy. He didn’t (see above). And not only did he not stay healthy, but he turned just about every punt return of the season into an adventure of the negative kind. Not something you’d expect out of a senior captain.
Coaching should be an improvement, especially on offense. The “Mark Whipple is better than Shawn Watson” horse was dead well before the spring game, and it does not need to be beaten. On defense, Randy Bates enters his second season. This continuity will pay dividends. Whipple is going to be a polarizing figure throughout the entire offseason. Did he do more with less and wring the most out of an undermanned unit? Or did he simply shuffle his pieces around and then handicap the team with some questionable play calling? On defense, Bates was nominated for the Broyles award (I think) and if he wasn’t he should have been.
The schedule is daunting. And it was.
Virginia is the trendy pick to win the Coastal. They return a Heisman-candidate Quarterback and an experienced defense. And win the coastal they did.
Ohio features a Heisman candidate at QB. Correction – He apparently had the flu against Pitt, but then again a lot of quarterbacks did…
Penn State has been recruiting better than Pitt for years and has the home
ref field advantage. Officiating was fairly okay. I don’t think we lost the game because of it. Sure wish we could have scored from the one…
UCF still has all that Florida speed. But not enough smarts to stop the Pitt Special.
Syracuse is just hitting their stride as a program and we play them on the road. They were down this year, and Duz just seems to have their number.
Miami has always had our number. And they always will.
We’ve never beaten North Carolina in this decade. Took us six tries, but we did it.
That’s seven potential losses, even if we take care of business in the games we’re “supposed” to win. Or five…
And so, with that, I will give you my prediction. It stands at 7-5, and that may be optimistic. Well I’ll be damned if we didn’t win seven games (although it could have just as easily been five.) That’s the “magic” of Pat Narduzzi though. And note the use of quotes around “magic”, because the Duz isn’t exactly in the fans’ good graces (and nor is he in mine). Still, he generally wins the games he’s supposed to win, but then again he generally loses a couple too. Boston College. Miami. But he generally pulls out a couple upsets as well. We were home dogs against UCF. I’m pretty sure we were road dogs against Duke. And guess what, if those games had come at the end of the season instead of the middle, well I think we’d all be feeling a hell of a lot better about the Quick Lane Bowl.
But we’re not. And I understand why. Because by the time we beat UNC we had a real shot at nine wins and maybe even a Coastal Division repeat, and then we fell on our faces. Hard. In only a way that a University of Pittsburgh football team can. (I say that without actually having been a fan of another college football team, but I think it pretty accurately sums up reality, or at least most Pitt fans’ reality.) And so we limp into a third-tier bowl game against a team we should beat, and God help us if we manage to lose, because if there is one saving grace about the Quicklane Bowl, it’s that Pitt is setup to win.
Unless we turn the ball over five times.
Hail to Pitt
(PS: Here is where you get to go back and check your prediction and then comment about it. Fun! Link to predictions.)