Well here we are, twenty-one games into the Whipple regime, and sure enough fans are calling for his head. It’s not unwarranted. In Whipple’s first full season as offensive coordinator Pitt ranked 87th in total offense and 114th in scoring offense, averaging just 21.2 points per game. (That’s 114th out of 130 teams folks). Considering that the object of a football game is to score more points than your opponent, well, 114th is not so good. On the flip side, it’s not like Whip had a lot to work with. The running back room was a disaster. The offensive line depth was paper thin, and the wide receivers were a ragtag collection of injury-prone transfers, unproven players and a guy named Maurice Ffrench (who actually turned out to be pretty good). Pitt also didn’t have a Tight End who could consistently hang onto a pass. Fortunately the quarterback (our boy Kenny Pickett) was serviceable , and it was on him that Narduzzi pinned his hopes. I’d venture to say that based on the supporting cast, Pitt would have finished a lot lower than 114th in scoring without Kenny, and his grit and late game poise willed Pitt to an eight win season.
Okay so year two…The offensive line returned a bunch of starters (albeit bad ones, save the Center) and Pickett returned. The running backs (again, not exactly world beaters) came back and we got a talent upgrade at WR with Addison and Turner. Tight ends continued to be a liability, but damn if we weren’t sold on continuity in the offseason! Well despite the Tight End position being a disaster as predicted, all of it has added up to improvement. A touchdown’s worth of improvement to be precise. Pitt is averaging 28.5 points per game, up from 21.2 just one year ago. And our scoring rank improved from 114th to 69th (out of 127 instead of 130 but still an improvement). I think I said in an earlier article that Kenny Pickett makes Pitt’s offense something close to average, and well there you go.
Whipple may not be retained, of course, even after improving the offense by more than a touchdown per game. If he goes, then the team has to learn and a whole new system, and that’s likely to set everyone back. If he stays, well, we’ve all seen how he likes to call the game, and I’m not sure the fan base is up for another season of that, especially when the quarterback position is likely to take a step back. And we all know a really good OC can breathe life into a program in year one , and I’ll refer you to Northwestern (my brother’s Alma mater, which is why I know this) as a case study.
Last year Northwestern averaged 16.3 points per game. 126th in the FBS. So if you think Pitt was bad…well at least you aren’t my brother. BUT…Northwestern fired their OC and lo! They are now averaging 24.8 points per game. A full 8.5 point improvement! But wait…isn’t that kind of similar to what Whipple did YOY at Pitt? Actually yes. Yes it is. And we didn’t even have to fire anybody. Okay okay, lets look at Miami. They brought in Rhett Lashlee – very very hotshot OC. And a bigtime transfer quarterback. Surely that has to be worth something. Well it is. Exactly 7.5 points per game…almost EXACTLY THE SAME AS PITT IMPROVED YEAR OVER YEAR. Last year Miami (under their old OC) averaged 25.7 points per game. This year? 33.2. If Lashlee hadn’t brought in D’Eriq King, do we think they would have seen this kind of improvement? Probably not. But they needed Lashlee to land King, right? Certainly they needed him to placate the fan base.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that a new OC isn’t going to be the end-all-be all. Pitt already got their 7.x point YOY improvement (even though it sure doesn’t feel like it sometimes), and they are still pretty thin in the talent department (Wide receivers – yea they are developing, O-line average at best, running back meh, tight end nonexistent, and lets be honest here, after seeing Yellen and Beville in limited action the quarterback position has EVERYBODY worried. But Whipple, apparently is the whisperer. Right? We can hope.)
Well I think we are talking about ceiling here. And say what you want about Lashlee in year one at Miami, he put up 41 points at SMU in year two (and about thirty in year one…) Whipple on the other hand. Well, read ahead at your own risk.
In 2014 Whipple took over a program that had made the jump from FCS to FBS just two year prior. In their first two years at the FBS level, UMass (coached by one Charlie Molnar) won exactly two games. Molnar was subsequently fired and Whipple (who won a natty with Umass at the FCS level in the 90’s) was brought in. Whipple got five years to try to elevate the program, and elevate it he did. They averaged slightly more than three wins per season during his tenure, which is a 200% improvement over his predecessor. Of course, as I’ve pointed out, the bar was pretty low. Whipple peaked at four wins in in 2018, and was replaced by Walt Bell, who promptly went 1-11. This year Bell has posted a record of 0-4. Wait, so Whipple – who we all hate – was able to coax three and four wins out of a team that two other guys can only win one with? Yes college football is not an exact science but hmmmm…
Okay so lets dive into his offense. His 1990’s sideways-pass-to-set-up-the-run West Coast offense.
- Year 1 (2014): 421 YPG, 27.3 PPG
- Year 2 (2015): 399 YPG, 22.2 PPG
- Year 3 (2016): 356 YPG, 23.3 PPG
- Year 4 (2017): 433 YPG, 30.6 PPG!
- Year 5 (2018): 437 YPG, 32.8 PPG!!! (I’m kind of facetious on the exclamation points here, but if Pitt were averaging 32.8 PPG this year we’d be 7-2. Still it’s no Rhett Lashlee 41 points…)
Again for comparison sake Pitt:
- Year 1 (2019): 380 YPG, 21.2 PPG
- Year 2 (2020): 367 YPG, 28.5 PPG
So what can we take away from this? Not much really. Pitt is likely an entirely different situation from UMass with different personnel at different stages of development, different assistant coach strengths and weaknesses and different player development potential. But since we are in the armchair quarterback business, lets go ahead and take a shot. First of all, Whipple in year three at Umass was abysmal. His quarterback was a first year starter, sophomore Andrew Ford. Ford threw for 2600+ yards, 26 TD (we can only imagine…) and 14 INT. That equalled a very Kenny Pickett-esqe 138 passer rating. Umass’ leading rusher was Sophomore Marquis Young who toted the ball 197 times for 898 yards (a respectable 4.6 average) but only four touchdowns. He also caught 26 balls for 5.7 yards.
I can’t resist a sidebar / fun fact here, and that fun fact is that that Umass’ third leading rusher in 2016 was Pitt 215 commit Sekai Lindsey who decommitted when Chryst left for Wisconsin. Not sure if that was because he was “advised” to or because he wanted to, but he landed at Umass and apparently washed out after the 2016 season. His 2016 stat line for the Minutemen was not bad. 33 rushes, 156 yards and 1 TD, 4.7 average. Pitt’s other running back commit in 2015 was Darrin Hall. To think Lindsey could have gone to USF, NC State, or Georgia Tech instead. Or just stayed at Pitt, redshirted and maybe been the lead back last year. Or maybe turned into nothing. The watchword here is stick to your commitments people.
Okay so where were we? Whipple’s offense in Year 3. Not good at Umass. Probably not going to be good at Pitt. Yellen (or Beville I suppose) has to develop, or they need a transfer quarterback. If not, are we look at 21 points per game? I can tell you what we are not looking at 41. And if it’s anything less than 28, there is no way Whipple gets a chance to get to year four. Reputation bought Pappy five years in Amherst, but on the flip side, the fans probably didn’t care. Whipple has no such luxury at Pitt.
Still, I’ll tantalize you with Whipple’s year four numbers at Umass. They are just good enough to be a step change from what we are seeing now. And that step change is just good enough to keep Pitt at the eight – nine win plateu (with the right schedule). If Whipple gets to stay on this season, and if he can coax them out of the team next year, then well he’s probably going to be here as long as Narduzzi, good, bad or indifferent. But getting back to the UMass year four stats… Whipple had man-among-boys Tight End Adam Breneman that year. I guess Lucas Krull had better hit that JUGS machine….
Pick your beverage carefully folks.
Hail to Pitt