By Michaelangelo Monteleone
Hello you POVerts, Maestro here. It’s been a while, but I’m back, sitting at a dimly lit table on a weeknight, a glass of tequila in one hand, an unfiltered Camel in the other, obsessing about the season.
<lights cigarette. takes sip of tequila>
You see, it’s expected to be a good one. 10-2 or bust. Best defensive line ever. Defensive backs 2 deep (at least). Linebackers rounding into form. Oh and the offense. We’re oh-so-deep at wide receiver (even without a certain Biletnikoff winner). We’ve got four-no-five competent running backs (at least two of which appear to have NFL potential). There’s a new quarterback who can sling it (and a competent backup… if he sticks around). And let’s not forget the offensive line. (Oh that glorious, seasoned and mature offensive line.)
It’s all going to be run by one Mr. Frank Cignetti. Oh sure, he’s been here before. And we saw what he did…an 1800 yard rusher, 1100 yard wide receiver, an All-American Tight End. But for as good as all that was, there’s a catch. Because you see, I’ve been looking into Cignetti, and I’ve found some things. Turns out Cignetti has a points problem. And points are… kind of the point.
Take a look at Boston College. Cignetti’s 2020 team put up 28 points per game. Respectable. But that was with ex-Notre Dame starter Phil Jurkovec throwing to NFL Tight End Hunter Long and all-ACC wide receiver Zay Flowers. The punchline is that Cignetti had three elite weapons and put up 28 points per game. In 2021 Jurkovec went down, and Cignetti’s crew could barely muster 24.
<takes another sip, taps ashes>
But maybe he was rusty. He’d been away from the college game for a while. Nine years to be precise. In 2011 Cignetti called plays for Rutgers. They averaged 26. The year prior he was at Pitt. Also 26. For all you liberal arts majors out there: the average of 28, 24, 26 and 26 is…26. More than just a coincidence? I think not.
But what about Pitt in 2009? Well let’s take one more step back in time. It’s true, Cignetti’s Power 5 peak the late-aughts. 2008 and 2009 to be specific. Back in ‘09 Cigs caught lighting in a bottle with Billy Stull, Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin and averaged 32 per game for our beloved Panthers. The year before that? Cignetti’s run-heavy attack put up 32.6 at Cal. There was also a forgettable 18 point effort at UNC in 2006, but let’s be real, that’s when UNC wasn’t Cheating. Of course that first Power 5, UNC gig wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Cignetti’s work in the Western Athletic Conference. True to his Pennsylvania roots, Cignetti signed on to a blue-collar program – Fresno State – where he spent four seasons working for Pat Hill. Cignetti’s first two seasons (’02 and ’03) averaged 25 points for the Bulldogs. (Awfully close to 26…) His last two seasons (’04 and ’05) averaged 39. His 2005 Fresno State squad took #1 USC down to the wire, losing 42-50.
Cignetti’s quarterback at Fresno was Paul Pinegar. A walk on who played baseball in high school. Head coach Pat Hill tapped Cignetti to develop the raw-but-talented Pinegar. Cignetti coached Pinegar to a 147.6 passer rating in 2005 – his senior year. It was the second highest rating of any Cignetti quarterback over a full season. The highest? Bill Stull in 2009 (150.1). Honorable mention goes to Phil Jurkovec, who posted a 149 over six games in 2021 (prior to injury). Sadly, there’s a drop off after that. Jurkovec turned in a slightly-better-than average 138.7 in 2020. Pittsburgh local-son Tino Sunseri put up a 137 in 2010. The still-developing Pinegar posted a 135 way back in 2004 – his third season under Cignetti. If you’re following along at home, that’s 6.5 years out of 11 where “Cignetti” QB play was above average or better. But…we all know what Sunseri looked like in 2010. How would we feel if the much-ballyhooed Kedon Slovis posts a 137 passer rating this year on the way to an eight-win regular season?
<sips tequila. another drag on the cigarette>
What can we realistically expect in 2022 then?
First, we can expect a lot of running. A Lot. Of Running. And by God, we all know that Pitt fans appreciate a good power running game out of the I-formation. During 7 of his 11 seasons, Cignetti’s offenses have featured at least 2000 total rushing yards. Fresno State’s Bryson Sumlin and Wendell Mathis (who and who?) went for 2099 yards and 25 TD’s in 2004. Cal’s Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen (both future NFL’ers) teamed up for 2295 and 19 in 2008. And Pitt’s Dion Lewis and Ray Graham (beloved and revered) combined for 2148 and 21 TD’s in 2010. Pretty, pretty, pretty good indeed.
Second, we can expect a vertical passing game. Cignetti has had a receiver average 15+ yards per reception 7 out of 11 seasons. Some of them even overlap with the 2000+ year rushing seasons. You might recognize the following Wide Receivers: Hakeem Nicks (39-660-4, 16.9 avg, 2006 UNC), Zay Flowers (56-892-9, 15.9 avg, 2020 BC), Jonathan Baldwin (57-1111-8, 19.5 avg, 2009 Pitt). Two of those three were drafted in the first round. The other one (Flowers) currently projects as a 4th.
Third, we can expect a good Tight End. Cignetti’s WAC’d out Fresno state offenses featured four wide, but after he came back east he got down to business. In 2009 Cignetti flipped Dorin Dickerson from Linebacker to H-Back and made him Pittsburgh-famous (and also an All-American). In 2020 Cignetti put BC’s Hunter Long in the NFL. (Stats: Dickerson 49-529-10, Long 57-685-5). So the over-under for Pitt’s Gavin Bartholomew has to be what? Second team All-ACC, with a state line of 55-600-7?
Sounds great doesn’t it? A strong running game, long passes, and plenty of production from the Tight End is every Pitt fan’s dream. But it comes with a price. And that’s the point of this article. What you shouldn’t expect from Frank Cignetti Junior…
<snubs out cigarette, finishes off tequila>
… is a lot of points, or even a ten-win season. We are talking about a career 28 points guy, who once broke forty in the WAC (Where defense is optional). We are talking about a guy who has only been part of one ten-win campaign in his 11 seasons (You know the one). Sorry, folks but stats don’t lie.
But hell, I’m drunk, and I love Pitt. And until the first snap is played, there’s still hope and optimism. So here is the bone I’ll throw you: Matt Canada never broke 40 until he came to Pitt (Maybe he did at NIU, but MAC…) And neither did Mark Whipple (except at DII Umass – even more irrelevant). But at Pitt, under Pat Narduzzi, they both broke forty. And now these two semi-revered-and-somewhat-reviled coordinators hold the highest points-per-game averages in Pitt history (40.9 and 41.4 per season, respectively).
Still, it’s obvious that Cignetti was brought in to do ball control, and (to me at least) it’s obvious that this season is riding on the defense. (Just the way Narduzzi likes it.) So let’s keep our expectations in check. We were calling for ground chuck three games into the Mark Whipple era, and now that that pesky Kenny Pickett is out of the picture, we’ve got it. Enjoy the time-capsule back to the 1970’s folks. All 32 points of it.