Preview 2018: Previewing and looking ahead to the Pitt Panthers season with what you need to know.
Preview 2018: Pitt Panthers
And then Pitt goes out there and beats Miami.
It’s not like the Panthers had a whole slew of awful breaks in their 5- season.
They didn’t have to play Clemson, the schedule as a whole was more than manageable, and yet they lost at Syracuse, totally gagged away a key weeknight game against a bad North Carolina squad, and couldn’t fight past Virginia Tech to keep bowl eligibility in play.
And then, the same program that handed Deshaun Watson and Clemson their only loss of the 2016 season rose up and rocked an unbeaten Miami in the season finale.
It’s not like the team was a doormat – three of the losses were by a total of 12 points – but inconsistent quarterbacking, occasionally miserable special teams play, another rough year from the secondary, and poor pass protection all contributed to the problems.
Throw in an offense that struggled to score in the red zone, and a defense that couldn’t get behind the line, and there were a whole slew of factors contributing to the losing campaign.
But now it’s the fourth year under Pat Narduzzi, and this is when his team has to be air-tight.
He’s been able to make his mark with some solid recruiting classes, and now he has the talent in place to have his best defense yet.
The linebacking corps might not be the best in the ACC, but it won’t be far off.
The pass rush should be far, far better thanks to a great-looking group of ends, and the secondary … moving on. (The defensive backs are going to struggle a wee bit – again.)
The special teams have to be far more special. The coverage teams were a disaster, and replacing return man Quadree Henderson isn’t going to be a breeze. But the real spotlight will be on the offensive side that struggled and sputtered so much.
Kenny Pickett rose up and was terrific late in the season, and now Pitt has its quarterback to build around. The receiving corps has to do its part with a slew of okay pieces, and the blocking has to be better for the great group of running backs.
And Narduzzi has to come through with a big year. He has yet to win a bowl game, his secondaries get torched way too often, and after what happened last season, it’s not bowl-game-or-else time, but it’s not terribly far off.
It’s this simple. That team that beat Miami needs to show up from the start and keep playing that way. If it does – and we all know it’s there – look out ACC.
NEXT: Offense Breakdown, Defense Breakdown, Top Players, Final Prediction & What Will Happen
What You Need To Know About The Pitt Offense
– The offense that struggled so much last season – averaging just 366 yards and 24 points per game – at least has a direction. It might have issues at wide receiver and tight end, but the ground attack under offensive coordinator Shawn Watson should be terrific, and the quarterback situation is set.
Ben DiNucci left for James Madison, star recruit Nick Patti is for the future, and one-time USC super-recruit Ricky Town can play – this is Kenny Pickett’s O to fly. The star of the Miami upset came up big late in the season, and now the expectations are off the charts. He’s expected to carry the team and be the signature star, but he’ll have to be even better than that because …
– The receiving corps is a potential problem. Leading pass catcher Rafael Araujo-Lopes is back, but he’s just okay. Jester Weah – the team’s most explosive target – is gone, and Indiana transfer Taysir Mack won’t be eligible until next year. That means a whole slew of young parts of the puzzle have to rise up and be stronger, including at tight end.
Seven of the top eight pass catchers from last year are back – not including TE Chris Clark, who took a leave of absence from the team – but they all have grow into playmakers. Fortunately, Pickett might be that good, and …
– The running game should be a whole lot better. Darrin Hall is terrific and Qadree Ollison is a good veteran, but the ground game only ran for 1,782 yards and averaged under four yards per carry. However, the talent is there in the backfield, especially with star recruit Mychale Salahuddin a potential part of the fun.
Part of the problem – at least statistically – was that the line couldn’t pass protect, and now three starters are done, including top tackle Brian O’Neill. There are plenty of veterans to play around with, and there’s help from a slew of JUCO transfers and former Kent State tackle Stefano Millin, but this should be the biggest area of focus in fall camp.
Biggest Key To The Pitt Offense
The line has to figure out how to dominate on a consistent basis. It might be a problem considering all the moving parts, but after giving up 31 sacks and 79 tackles for loss, keeping the strong ACC lines out of the backfield is a must.
Pitt, potentially, has one of the league’s better backfields, but everyone needs more time and space to work. The ground game that only hit the 200-yard mark twice against FBS teams has too much talent to be that mediocre again.
NEXT: Defense Breakdown, Top Players, Final Prediction & What Will Happen
What You Need To Know About The Pitt Defense
– With a defensive head coach in Pat Narduzzi, and with new defensive coordinator Randy Bates, and with a defensive mind like Charlie Partridge’s handling the line, it’s way past time the Pitt defense started to rock. It allows close to 27 points and close to 400 yards per game, with the primary problem a secondary that got hit for 254 yards per game.
Nine starters return on D, there’s depth, there’s talent, and there’s a whole lot of potential to do far more. It all starts with …
– The defensive ends should be terrific. The pass rush sputtered and struggled too much – coming up with 23 sacks and a mere 56 tackles for loss – but that’s about to change.
Sophomore Rashad Weaver was one of the stars of the offseason, and with Dewayne Hendrix and James Folston back, the ends are about to be an issue for opposing quarterbacks. Amir Wats and Shane Roy aren’t massive, but they’re veteran tackles who’ll lead a deep group.
The whole line has to do more to help out a secondary that gets Dane Jackson back at one corner, Damar Hamilton at one safety gig, and is about to deal with some big battles for the other two positions.
– Linebacker should be the team’s best position. Start with leading tackler Oluwaseun Idowu on the strongside, throw in the versatile Saleem Brightwell to produce wherever needed, and then add to the mix Quintin Wirginis in the middle after missing last year hurt, and the Panthers are loaded. That doesn’t even factor in the depth and veterans to work into the rotation.
Biggest Key To The Pitt Defense
At some point, Narduzzi has to give his secondary a break. To put it one way, Pitt is never afraid to give its corners a chance to show what they can do. The pass defense got lit up like a Christmas tree two years ago, and was better last season – but not by much.
Okay, so allowing almost 1,300 fewer yards is an improvement, but there were only nine picks – three came against Rice – for a secondary that was the second-least efficient in the ACC.
If the pass rush really is better – duh – the secondary will be stronger. But without Jordan Whitehead at one safety spot and Avonte Maddox at corner, it might be a rough run for a little while.
NEXT: Top Players, Final Prediction & What Will Happen
Best Pitt Offensive Player
QB Kenny Pickett, Soph.
The guy throws one touchdown pass, hits 59% of his passes, and now he’s the next Dan Marino? Hardly, but he was terrific against Virginia Tech and engineered the win over Miami, and now the offense is his. Great throughout the offseason, the 6-2, 225-pounder has pro passing skills and can move, running for 93 yards and two scores in his limited time.
No, he’s not going to be the most accurate passer, but he’ll push the ball deep, is fearless, and can move just enough to buy himself time. If he settles down the quarterback situation and is great from the start, Pitt will be a player.
2. RB Darrin Hall, Sr.
3. RB Qadree Ollison, Sr.
4. OG/OT Alex Bookser, Sr.
5. RB Mychale Salahuddin, Fr.
Best Pitt Defensive Player
LB Oluwaseun Idowu, Sr.
The linebacking corps might be terrific, but Idowu should still be the star. The 6-0, 230-pounder followed up his 74-tackle sophomore season with an All-ACC season, cranking up a team-leading 94 tackles with five sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss from the strongside.
Very smart, very active, and with the fight of the walk-on that he was, he’s always around the ball and great in the open field.
2. DE Rashad Weaver, Soph.
3. CB Dane Jackson, Jr.
4. LB Quintin Wirginis, Sr.
5. DE Dwayne Hendrix, Sr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
WR Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Sr.
Pickett is the true key player, but he needs targets to rise up and help him rock. Araujo-Lopes is a quick 5-9, 190-pounder who led the team with 43 catches for 531 yards and two scores, but he needs to grow into a No. 1 target – or else someone else has to.
The former JUCO transfer can move, he’s an academic all-star, and he can get himself open. Can he average over 17 yards per catch like Jester Weah? If so, the dynamic of the receiving corps quickly changes.
Key Game To The Pitt Season
Georgia Tech, Sept. 15
You don’t want to put too much stock into a mid-September game as a make-or-break moment, but that might be what the Georgia Tech game is. With road games at North Carolina and UCF up next, and with a nasty November with three road dates, the Panthers can’t give away any home games.
Last year, they got rocked 35-17 in the ACC opener in Atlanta and started out the conference season 0-3. Win, and all of a sudden, the rest of the slate might start to look more manageable.
2017 Pitt Fun Stats
– Time of Possession: Pitt 32:28 – Opponents 27:32
– 4th Down Conversions: Pitt 13-of-20 (65%) – Opponents 8-of-17 (47%)
– Kickoff Return Average: Opponents 25.21 yards – Pitt 18.73 yards
NEXT: Final Prediction & What Will Happen
Pitt Prediction: What’s Going To Happen
This will be one of the ACC’s most interesting teams. No one will predict much, no one will think it can challenge for the Coastal, and no one will think it can beat Miami again or push past Virginia Tech.
But watch out.
If Kenny Pickett is the real deal at quarterback, and if the O line can give him time to operate, the Panthers should be more consistent and more explosive after only scoring 287 points – the 2016 team scored 532.
The biggest difference should be a defense that improved by leaps and bounds last season, and has the talent to do even more. It’s a veteran crew that’s been building for the last few seasons, and now there’s depth and star power.
It’s a bit much to expect a division title, but Virginia Tech does have to come to Pittsburgh, and the rest of the ACC slate isn’t all that brutal. At the very least, this should be a bowl bound team.
Guessing The Preseason Regular Season Win Total Will Be Set At … 5.5
As long as the Panthers load up early on wins, they should be okay.
There’s no Clemson, Florida State, NC State or Louisville from the Atlantic side. Start from there, enjoy that massive break, and everything else isn’t all that bad.
Yeah, the revenge game at Miami to end the regular season is a problem, and going to UCF, Notre Dame and Wake Forest won’t be easy, and dealing with Penn State isn’t fun, but Pitt is good enough to win at least two of those. It might have to with Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to deal with at home.
There’s enough talent in place to get to at least six wins, but the end of the regular season – Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest, at Miami – is going to drop like a hammer.