By our good friend – Michaelangelo Monteleone
A couple of years ago, I donated $150 to the Pitt Football Championship fund. In return I got a handwritten thank you card from Kenny Pickett. It wasn’t much, just the words “thank you” and “Kenny Pickett #8” scrawled on a Pitt logo 3×5 card, but it was in real honest-to-goodness ink, and I would like to think that it was actually Pickett himself that wrote it. I stuck it in my office window and went about my business. Pitt went on to have a mediocre season, and when we moved house the next year the card ended up in the trash. Turns out that may have been a pretty stupid move.
At the time of writing, Pickett has been picked as a first-team “midseason” all American by no less than three National publications. (The Athletic, The Sporting News and CBS Sports). He’s also been getting legitimate Heisman buzz from all corners of the college football world. His stats have been blistering: 69.8% completion percentage, 9.4 yards per attempt and 21 TD’s against one (count it) one, interception. He’s also added three touchdowns on the ground, and a handful of key 3rd and 4th down conversions. Which all begs the question: Does anyone still want to fire Mark Whipple?
The answer of course is no, although there are (unsubstantiated) rumors in certain Pitt circles that coach Whip would have been gone if Kenny hadn’t returned. Well, they both did return, and it’s pretty clear to see that that was a good thing.
But this article isn’t about Mark Whipple. Well at least not directly. It’s about Kenny, and about whether or not our Midseason 1st team All-American can keep up his momentum through the meat of the schedule. If he does, he’ll almost certainly finish the season in the same place (1st team All American), have a legit shot at the Heisman, and possibly break into day 1 of the NFL draft. If he doesn’t he’ll just be another “Same Old Pitt” story.
To be clear, while this article may strike a somewhat skeptical tone, I am absolutely rooting for Kenny to succeed. I’m a Pitt Man and a Pitt Fan, and I want dearly for #8 to prove all the doubters wrong, and to finally deliver excellence to us longsuffering Pitt fans. But, as we know, this is Pitt, and…things happen. And so, I think we can all agree there are a lot of factors that could lead to #8’s second half demise. What if the so-far-pretty-good pass blocking falls apart? What if all of the sudden the receiving corps gets an extended case of the dropsies? (We got a preview of that in Blacksburg….shudder) What if Kenny sustains a non-contact injury running to the sideline? (okay unrealistic and kind of a cheap shot, but hey it could happen). The biggest risk however, I think would come from a step-up in class as Pitt enters the second half of the season. And so, I’ve prepared a little analysis to help us think through what might be in store.
Here are pass efficiency defensive rankings for Pitt’s first six opponents, compared to Pickett’s pass efficiency in each game:
- UMass: 122nd – 162.1 / Pickett 152.6
- Tennessee: 33rd – 120.4 / Pickett 151.5
- WMU: 105th – 148.1 / Pickett 235.1
- New Hampshire (FCS): NA / Pickett 265.5
- Georgia Tech: 113th – 151.7 / Pickett 191.3
- Virginia Tech 37th – 121.1 / Pickett 123.4
The good news is that Pickett has over-delivered in every single game, with the “six dropped passes and a really bad Izzy Tripping Penalty” Virginia Tech game being the only outlier.
The bad news is that Kenny’s midseason All-American stats came at the expense of some pretty bad pass defenses, with one FCS team thrown in for good measure. Still, there were a couple of bright spots. Kenny picked up the offense and put it on his back down at Rocky Top, beating Tennessee’s 33rd ranked unit into submission with 2 TD’s and 285 yards (plus one TD on the ground), and he played well enough on National TV against Virginia tech to keep the pundits on his side, so he’s got that going for him.
Here are the pass efficiency defense rankings for the next six games:
- Clemson: 12th – 108.1
- Miami: 69th – 131.6
- Duke: 96th – 143.5
- UNC: 77th – 144.5
- Virginia: 74th – 133.4
- Syracuse: 89th – 140.0
Honestly, none of them scare me all that much. Except Clemson. But let’s double click into that. I’ve listed the quarterbacks they’ve faced below. Tell me how many of them scare you? Maybe two of six? I’ll give you bonus points if you can name the team each one of them plays for (or you can just scroll down to reveal the answers, and their pass efficiency rating vs the Clemson Tigers)
- JT Daniels
- Cory Fields
- Jordan Yates
- Devin Leary
- Denis Grosel
- Garrett Schrader
- JT Daniels – UGA – 104.5 – Daniels is a Junior and shredded the Cincy defense to the tune of 392 yards in the 2020 Peach Bowl, as well as posting a 178.5 rating in three games vs mid-grade SEC competition last year, so he’s legit. A 104.5 rating is not what you’d have expected of him.
- Cory Fields – South Carolina State – They’re an FCS punching bag that scored three points against the Tigers. Not even going to waste time hunting for stats.
- Jordan Yates – Georgia Tech – 112.3 – Yates is GT’s second QB, a RS freshman who came in in relief of an injury Jeff Sims in the previous game and got the start against Clemson. Led them to 8 points. Yawn.
- Devin Leary – NC State – 148.2 – Leary is considered by many to be a legit, albeit injury-prone, FBS QB. You’ll remember he beat Pitt last year, and he looked pretty good doing it. He threw four touchdowns against NC State’s win against Clemson this year, although two of them were in OT. He dinked and dunked his way to victory though, with 32 completions for just 238 yards.
- Denis Grosel – Boston College – 112.8 – Unlike Leary, Grosel is generally not considered a legit FBS QB. Like Leary, he also beat Pitt (albeit two years ago). Unlike Leary Grosel did not dink and dunk against Clemson. He threw for 311 yards against the Tigers this year, but he only completed 58% of his passes, and he also threw two interceptions and no TD’s.
- Garrett Shrader – Syracuse – 92.8 – Transfer portal QB who is completing 53.7% of his passes for 5 TD’s and 3 INT’s on the season. He also plays for Syracuse. Need I say more?
So yeah, not exactly a murder’s row, and with the exception of Leary and (maybe) Daniels, Clemson has not faced a QB anywhere near Pickett’s caliber. Still, Clemson’s defense will be the most talented Pickett has faced all season. They’ll be deeper than Tennessee, and better coached than Georgia Tech. They’ll definitely be more motivated than the Hokies. Pickett will have more pass-rushers in his face. He’ll have tighter windows in which to put the ball. He’ll have wily ball-hawking safeties reading his eyes. And of course, he’ll have the contend with The Monkey.
The Monkey? What Monkey?
And this one:
Pitt fans will remember those two stat lines as Kenny’s two games against the Clemson tigers… not exactly stellar. Granted, Pickett is a different guy this time around, and his supporting cast is the best it’s ever been, and Pitt for the first time ever gets Clemson at Home, but it’s still enough to make you wonder. Is Pickett different enough to kill the Monkey? Is Pitt? This is absolutely the kind of game Pitt has laid an egg in time and time again. Literally all the boxes are checked:
- Recently earned National Ranking: Check
- Positive fan Buzz around the program: Check
- Playing at home against a nationally-recognized and generally more talented program: Check
- Opposing offense who has struggled recently and seems to play to Pitt’s strengths: Check
- Game televised on national TV: Check
So yes, there is a monkey on Pickett’s back. And yes, there is a monkey on Pitt’s back. And I’d lay at least 50% odds on the fact that that Monkey is still going to be in place around 7 p.m. Saturday. Of course, I hope to heck I’m wrong. Pitt hasn’t had a midseason All-American quarterback since you-know-who (and I’m not even sure midseason All-American was a thing back then). And we all know that quarterback play is a differentiator. And we all know that the third times a charm. And we all know the stage is set for Kenny Pickett to complete the trifecta: Kill that Monkey, increase his draft stock and thrust himself squarely in the center of the Heisman conversation. If he does all that, I might just have to increase my Football Championship Fund Contribution, and of course send #8 a thank you card, handwritten.
Hail to Pitt