So as we sit here at the quarter-pole (three games into an 11 game season) we can start to make some observations about the team. The first is that the Defense is Really Good. Perhaps even better than last season. The second is that the kicking game is a mixed bag, but it has the opportunity to improve. Third, the offense is still trying to find its way, which is a bit frustrating given we have a senior quarterback and we’re in the second year of Mark Whipple’s tenure.
And so it’s the offense I’d like to talk about, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe our expectations were a little too high. The Austin Peay game did nothing to change that. Pickett looked as good as he’s looked in his career. Passes were for the most part being caught. Deep shots were being taken. The running game looked fairly crisp. Yes it was just Austin Peay, but it was safe to say the fan base was pretty geeked about year two of Mark Whipple.
And then Syracuse happened.
Pitt managed to roll up just 342 yards and put 21 points on the board. (Although it would have been 30 had it not been for three missed field goals). Heck, even lowly Georgia Tech managed 453 yards against the ‘Cuse (although just 20 points, but they turned the ball over five times.)
The Louisville game was only marginally better. Pitt mustered 376 yards (up from 342!), and put up 23 points (up from 21!).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have won both games, but lets double click into what are two pretty similar outcomes. The box score for both games will show what amounts to basically a 50/50 run pass split, all well and good. Against Syracuse, Pickett threw the ball 36 times, and he largely played dink and dunk – 69% completion, 6 YPA. Against Louisville, he was still dinking and dunking – just not as effectively – 61%, 5.8 YPA. In both games the running game ideally would average close to a 5 YPC average to compliment that. Instead it consistently came up about a yard short. Vince Davis carried the ball 17 times for 3.9 YPC against the ‘Cuse; AJ carried it 11 times for 3.4 . The two guys who made the most out of their carries, were utilized the least. Todd Sibley was given three touches out of the wildcat – all of them productive – but was yanked after a holding penalty and hasn’t been seen in the backfield since. Daniel Carter bulldozed twice for 15 yards, and those were his only two carries of the day. Why? The numbers against Louisville were similar. The only difference is true Frosh Izzy Abanikanda got nine (count ’em!) carries at 4.6 yards per pop (Carter left the game with an injury or he may have gotten more touches as well). The 9 Izzy carries are a step in the right direction but still not enough (in most fans’ estimation…)
Lets now take a step back. Big picture. Eye test. My biggest complaint about Pitt’s running game is how Whipple calls it. Sporadic? Predictable? I’m not sure how it could be both and yet it absolutely is. And look, I get that the theory behind the West Coast Offense is to use the horizontal passing game to loosen up the defense to set up the run, but dang it Whipple if you are going to invest in a half a dozen sideways passes in the first half, at least have the guts to bust it up the middle more than once a series. (I’m exaggerating a little, he’s cut the first half sideways passes down to about three). Of course it’s the exact opposite in the second half. If Pitt has a lead of three points or more, you’ll find Whipple running (often uncreatively) on first and second down, and then hoping they aren’t behind the sticks on third. Look Mark, a three and out is a three and out. I know the the Duzz doesn’t like it but how about taking a couple shots against those eight man fronts? Maybe even run a little play action? At the very least give Kenny a run check. He showed he could master those as a sophomore.
So that brings me back to the reason I wanted to write the article, because as we sit here at the quarter pole I can’t definitely say that Pitt’s offense has an identity. Are they a passing team? Well kinda. But not like the Walt Harris days of yore. Are they smashmouth? No, not even close. And they certainty aren’t whatever it was that Matt Canada did. The closest I can come “finesse ball control” (because the the hidden stat is that Pitt has possessed the ball for 34 mins against the ‘Cuse and 35 mins against the ‘Ville). That phrase turns my stomach by the way.
Finesse ball control… ummm yea. Well I guess if that’s way it’s going to be, that’s the way it’s going to be. Of course it would work much better if Pitt’s receivers could hold onto the ball.
On the other hand, Whipple could just be saving all of the good stuff until the games get really tough. Lets hope so, because the current offense isn’t going to cut it against Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson.
Hail to Pitt