Reed forwarded me the annual Athlon “ACC Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes” article last night, and I’m glad he did, because it’s one of my favorite articles of the year.
You’ll remember what they said about Pitt heading into last year:
“The division title was a great thing for Pat (Narduzzi), but it probably doesn’t change much for the program. Year in and year out you always see the same thing from these guys — they reflect Narduzzi in how they’re physical and disciplined and really mean working against you, but it’s always a question of how far their talent can take them. It’s not about a limitation of their culture or their play calling. It’s really all about what kind of talent they can get. They’re losing a lot of guys heading into this season, and the crowning achievement for that group was a 7–7 run. That’s just the reality of the program right now.”
Given that Pitt finished 8-5 (and probably should have finished 9-4 except for the BC implosion) this guy was slightly off base. I don’t think he counted on the defensive talent taking a step up last year. He was spot on about the offense.
“Right away, you notice they need to replace their backfield. Qadree Ollison is a guy they’ll miss; he will likely end up on an NFL roster. Next they’re going to have to find a whole new offensive line. And they really lived on pounding it, on wearing you down. When they were clicking, it was because they could beat you up running. They were a one-dimensional offense after Matt Canada left, and you can’t do that without being really, really talented at that one thing.”
This guy was Not Wrong. Qadree Ollison ended up on the Falcons (drafted in the 5th round) and by all accounts they like him. Meanwhile, Pitt’s rushing yards per game dropped from 227.9 in 2018 (12th) all the way to 119.2 in 2020 (119th). For much of the season Pitt’s new offensive line couldn’t run block their way out of a wet paper bag, and Pitt’s stable of running backs was middling at best. What this coach didn’t count on was Pitt’s reliance on the pass – they weren’t great at it, but they were good enough to at least move the ball a little and score when the absolutely had to (for the most part…) They finished with 261 YPG (39th) and 39.5 Att per game (9th!), which was up from 141.8 (121st) and 22.6 (123rd). Still, scoring offense dropped off. Pitt averaged 25.6 points per game in 2018, and just 21.2 in 2020. Not completely unexpected when you flip the script on your offensive philosophy, have to rely on a mostly middling receiving corps and an offensive line that wasn’t particularly good at any one thing. I suppose the good news is that it will be hard for them to be any worse in 2020.
“Mark Whipple is a really great offensive mind. They don’t have a ton of talent to hand him, but the guy is coming from UMass.”
See above notes about flipping the script and moving away from the running game. Kenny Pickett was oft-maligned last season, but both Narduzzi and Whipple were smart enough to realize that he was probably Pitt’s best offensive player. Yes Pickett disappointed in the Virginia game (and also in the Virginia Tech game) but he stepped up against Penn State with 372 yards, and he engineered a bunch of come from behind wins last season. Pro Football Focus recognized it too, grading Pickett as the 33rd best NCAA QB heading into the season. Here is what they had to say: “His uncatchable-throw rate on passes thrown past the line of scrimmage was first in the ACC in 2019. His performance under pressure was exceptional this past year, too, as he converted pressure to sacks at the third-lowest rate in the Power 5 while earning a 27th-ranked passing grade under pressure. That said, Pickett failed to crack the top 100 when it came to big-time throw total, so he’ll want to change that in 2020.” The knock on Pickett from Pitt fans, of course, is that his uncatchable-throw rate behind the line of scrimmage was unacceptably high!
“They’re going to have to ugly it up with their defense to stay around .500 this year.”
51 sacks ugly enough for you, coach?
Now that we’ve taken this nice little trip down memory lane, lets have a look at what they’ve said heading into 2020.
“You know what you’re getting here. This is the team that looks basic on film and then you get into a fight before the game, a fight during the game and they try to fight you after. That’s all Pat (Narduzzi). He is that team.”
“That personality is how they carry themselves. They’re gonna hold you, press man coverage, get personal fouls, goad you into it, all of it. Pat is a great defensive mind, but he needs to learn that the team reflects the head coach. They ride too hot and cold; they swing too much because that’s how he’s acting on the sideline.”
I’m nearly convinced that there is one guy they rely on for the “this is Pat Narduzzi’s team” quote every year to open it up. If that’s true, his opinion of Pat has gone waaay down over the years.
2019: “Year in and year out you always see the same thing from these guys — they reflect Narduzzi in how they’re physical and disciplined and really mean working against you”
2018: “Pat (Narduzzi) is one of my favorite guys in the business. A tough guy, a fair guy, a fun guy. That team plays exactly to his personality — and I mean that in a good way.”
Alright, back to 2020, time for the “Pitt’s not good enough in the running game” guy to weigh in:
2020: “They’re not as good running the ball as they think they are. They’re going to have to get better and more creative there, even in the new offense. It has to work when they hit you with that change-up after the passes.”
Remember what he said in 2019: “Right away, you notice they need to replace their backfield.“
And 2018 (Guess he forgot about Ollison): “As good as Pickett can be, they have to find some pieces around him both in the run game and on the outside. Darrin Hall is a serviceable guy at tailback, but he’s not the elite that they’ve had their in the past. They don’t have that pile pusher, that guy that can get those third and short gains to move the sticks. That puts a lot of pressure on a young quarterback to be perfect.”
In all reality though, I don’t know if Pitt thinks they are very good at running the ball right now. All I heard from Narduzzi during the offseason was “we have to get get better at running the ball”. That, to me, makes me think he doesn’t think we’re terribly good at it. With that being said, this Coach isn’t wrong about the running game needing to work as an effective change up after all of Whipple’s passes. Last year it was generally not.
Oh oh, how about the “I Love Mark Whipple” guy!
2020: “(Offensive coordinator Mark) Whipple is a really good schematics guy; they just didn’t have what they needed last season. Schematically they give you problems no one else in this conference does.”
2019: “Mark Whipple is a really great offensive mind. They don’t have a ton of talent to hand him, but the guy is coming from UMass.”
Side note – I actually love the 2020 comment, because I think that Whipple’s scheme is right fit for Pitt once they get the right guys in place. Pitt’s done a nice job upgrading their WR room with young talent. It’s probably about 2-3 years away from really blossoming, which incidentally will be the year when Beville and/or Yellen are seniors… (and yes I know that essentially I’ve fallen into the old “wait ’til next year” trap here, but this time its true…right?)
“Their upside is that front seven. They’re gonna disrupt you. They can get after it, they can confuse your protections and they can fight through you.”
Thanks for the hot take coach.
“They really could be a nine- or 10-win team this season if the offensive line gets better and they fix the scoring problems. The pieces are there.”
Talk dirty to me …
“(Kenny) Pickett is a solid game manager but could maybe develop into something more.”
Apparently all he needs to do is start making big-time throws.
Hail to Pitt