Losing a game, losing a quarterback and trying to find answers with Pitt holding a 2-4 record.
The same theme
Every season has its themes, and 2017 is shaping up as follows:
The defense plays well enough but the offense falls short.
That’s been the case in every winnable game that has turned into a loss. It was the case, to some extent, at Penn State. It was certainly the case at Georgia Tech. And it was most definitely the case yesterday at the Carrier Dome. I know it seems illogical to say the defense played well enough when that side of the ball gave up 436 rushing yards to GT and 365 passing yards to Syracuse, but if you look at those games, it’s true: the defense played well enough to win, and with a functioning offense, those games are wins for Pitt. If you get a Paul Johnson team to fumble four times and punt four times, then you should win. And if you hold a Dino Babers team under 30 points, you should win.
But that’s the rub: Pitt’s offense hasn’t been a functioning unit, not consistently enough when facing good competition. So those defensive efforts have been wasted. It’s kind of the opposite of last season, in a way (although the defensive performances this season are not quite on the level of last year’s offensive performances).
The offense has been the big letdown this season, the biggest disappointment. Whether that’s on Shawn Watson or the quarterbacks or the line or the backs or the receivers or everybody - the most likely answer - is a judgment to be passed by someone with more football knowledge and access to a whole lot of film. All I know is the offense isn’t working consistently enough, and that lack of consistent production is the reason Pitt is 2-4 instead of 4-2.
A new complication
It wasn’t anything new that Pitt couldn’t run the ball at Syracuse. And it wasn’t really a recent development that the offense stalled on third down. But there was a new wrench thrown into the gears when Max Browne got hurt in the third quarter.
That’s a big blow to the offense; no matter what you think of Browne, if he’s out for an extended period of time - and I don’t expect him back any time soon - he was Pitt’s best option, and when he was able to make throws and the receivers actually caught them, the Panthers’ offense was, dare we say, good?
Now, with him out for awhile, the offense just added a new challenge to overcome. Ben DiNucci will get the nod to start in place of Browne and Kenny Pickett will be the backup - more on that in a second - but as if there weren’t already enough issues with the offense, now the passing game and the best chance for an effective passing game has taken a hit. And that’s a blow to the offense, because for most of the season, the bulk of Pitt’s offensive success has come via the pass.
I thought this during the game on Saturday before Browne got hurt, and I think it even more in light of his injury: Shawn Watson and the offensive staff need to find time to do some serious self-scouting. They need to take everything they do on the field and put it in one of two piles. One pile is the stuff that works. One pile is the stuff that doesn’t. And you can guess what I think you should do with that second pile.
At this point, a bunch of the Matt Canada stuff needs to go in the second pile - specifically the jet sweeps and the shovel passes. By my count, Pitt ran three of each at Syracuse on Saturday: the three sweeps gained a net of zero yards and the three shovels gained a net of five yards. Two of the sweeps came on first down and gained two and one, respectively, and they both came as Pitt had the ball moving through the air.
Maybe it’s the situations that those plays are called, maybe it’s the execution, maybe it’s the players, maybe it’s the defense being ready for it; for whatever reason, it’s not working. In fact, the best thing the sweeps have done is get defenders to bite, so when the quarterback pulls the ball and doesn’t hand it to Quadree Henderson or Maurice Ffrench or Rafael Araujo-Lopes, he often has some opportunities in the pass game. I really think at this point that those plays have to go. The season is six games old and they’re not working.
The Pickett situation
First things last here. The big question everyone has been asking since the game ended - literally the moment it ended - is why Kenny Pickett’s redshirt was burned for one play. I laid this out on the podcast I recorded from my car on the ride home from Syracuse, and I’ll repeat it here. This is what I think happened:
When Browne went down, DiNucci became the top quarterback, and that meant Pitt had to get a backup ready: helmet on, warmed up and ready to go. Pickett entered the game as the No. 3 quarterback, so he became the backup when DiNucci went in. I think that makes sense. If they believe he is the next best QB and gives them the best chance to win after Browne and DiNucci, then he’s the guy you want to have ready in case DiNucci has to leave the field.
So that’s the plan when Browne gets hurt in the third quarter. Fast forward to the final drive of the game. There’s 52 seconds on the clock and the thought process is the same: if DiNucci can’t play, Pickett is the next best option so he goes in. Again, I think that makes sense. If you believe Pickett gives you the best chance to drive into field goal range, then he’s the guy you want to have ready.
Nobody thought that moment would come on the final play of the game. But when DiNucci’s helmet came off, the backup had to go in, and that was Pickett. In an ideal world, the coaches could have sent Thomas MacVittie in for that one snap and preserved Pickett’s redshirt for another week. Two thoughts on that:
1. I think it might have been easier said than done to get MacVittie from his role as headset-wearing sideline-signal-sender into a helmet and onto the field. It sounds easy: as soon as DiNucci’s helmet comes off, rip off the headset, put on a helmet and go. But in practical application, I think it would have taken longer and might have resulted in a game-ending delay of game. If there was a time to make the decision to go with MacVittie, it was before the drive started; have him warmed up and ready to go, and then he’d be on the field for that last snap. But again, if you believe Pickett is the better option, then isn’t he the guy you would want to have ready?
2. This one might be more important. I think the coaching staff probably had a decent idea that Browne is going to miss some significant time, so they likely weren’t too concerned about blowing Pickett’s redshirt because they are assuming he will get some opportunities in the coming weeks. That’s guessing on my part, but it’s plausible because Browne’s injury did not look good and even Narduzzi was willing to offer that Browne would likely be out “a couple weeks.”
I suspect we’ll see Kenny Pickett play in the next few games, either rotating with DiNucci for a drive or two or playing in a game that has gotten out of hand (an unfortunate but realistic scenario to consider). What’s done is done; Pickett’s redshirt is gone. Now we’ll see how much work he gets.
While the quarterback situation gets sorted out, the coaches and players still have to look for ways to generate some offense. The passing game will likely take a step back - at least in terms of potential - with DiNucci and the running game hasn’t done much of anything this season. So what can be done?
You probably know the answer.
Jordan Whitehead’s snaps on offense have to increase. He carried the ball seven times for 73 yards on Saturday, basically running one play, and the difference between him and Pitt’s other ball-carriers was evident every time he was on the field. No one else on the team can do what he does (well, there might be another; more on that in a second), and he brings the element that is sorely lacking: playmaking ability out of the backfield.
I know the coaches don’t want to sacrifice too much on defense, and it might not have been coincidence that Whitehead was on the sideline for the first half of that final Syracuse drive, when the Orange ran seven times for 34 yards to eat a bunch of clock. But whatever the balance is for Whitehead, it should probably get closer to 50/50 in the very near future, because they might actually need him more on offense right now than they do on defense.
It helps that Damar Hamlin and Bricen Garner have been getting better. Neither of those guys is Whitehead at this point, but they’re getting better, and they might be up to the task of taking a bigger share of snaps at safety.
And then there’s one other option; it just depends how far-out the coaches want to get.
I know the board has been clamoring for him all season, and I understand why. He’s an elite athlete and is going to be really, really good. But I think it’s at least considering him for offense this season. Now, there’s a lot that goes into that decision. For starters, do you even consider it given the course of the season? He could be the second coming of <insert outstanding offensive weapon here> and it still might not get Pitt to a bowl game. Should you pull his redshirt to play him for six games in what could still end up being a 3/4/5-win season?
Then again, if you really want to go all-hands-on-deck and give it everything you’ve got, then maybe it’s worth it. Every account I’ve heard is that Ford is the real deal. He is lighting it up on the scout team on defense, and when they have used him on offense, the results have been electric. Remember Pat Narduzzi raving about the job Ford did running the scout offense during Georgia Tech week? I’ve been told that wasn’t just empty talk; multiple people have told me he really was making plays on Pitt’s defense, in some cases impressing the defensive players more than GT’s actual quarterback did.
So if the coaches want to really give this season everything they have, if they really want to leave no stone unturned in their search for offensive playmakers, then Ford might be one to turn to. And if you’ve been on this site, you know I’m not usually given to flights of fancy; I don’t usually suggest things that are too ridiculous. But I think this is one they should genuinely consider, even just for a year before moving Ford back to defense full-time so he can learn a safety position all offseason.
Silly? Maybe. But using Ford and Whitehead could give this offense some extra punch that it’s lacking. The real question is whether it’s worth it to go that deep into the bag of tricks if the biggest goal for the season is simply bowl eligibility, and even that’s looking like a tall order at this point.
The rest of the defense
Overall, I think there is improvement to be seen in this defense. I think you have to look beyond the yards that Pitt gave up on Saturday (the points were pretty good, though), but if you do that, I think you see a lot of solid play that is markedly better than it was in Week One.
The corners, in particular, continue to impress me. They’re not perfect - few corners are going to be perfect against Syracuse’s passing game - but Dane Jackson and Avonte Maddox have been pretty good, in my opinion, and I think almost everyone would have to agree that they’ve been light years ahead of where they were last season.
Through six games, Jackson and Maddox have combined for 10 pass breakups and three interceptions. Jackson is tied for fourth in the ACC with six breakups and he is one of nine players tied for fourth with two picks. He’s getting challenged a lot - prior to the Syracuse game, teams had mostly stayed away from throwing at Maddox - and he is answering the challenge more often than not.
I also think the linebackers are getting better. Seun Idowu had two sacks at Syracuse, and he and the other starting linebackers - Saleem Brightwell and Elijah Zeise - are the team’s top three tacklers at the midpoint of the season, which is a positive sign.
The defensive line is still developing, but I thought they were more effective at Syracuse then they had been in previous games despite using a lot of three-man lines (more effective blitzing from the linebackers probably helped everybody look better). They still need more production from up front; Dewayne Hendrix has three tackles for loss to lead the group, and the tackles and ends have combined for 10 TFL’s and 3.5 sacks this season. Those numbers have to improve, but of all the position groups on defense, I’m probably most optimistic about the linemen; they’ve got some really talented players who are young but have tons of potential.
The folly of youth
Pitt has been working in more and more young players on defense, whether it was Therran Coleman starting as a nickel on Saturday or the increased rotation at linebacker that we’ve seen the last couple weeks.
Those are positive developments, since the more in-game reps those players see, the quicker their growth will occur. But the flip side is that those young players are going to make mistakes. Some mistakes won’t be obvious - a step in the wrong direction at the snap, a misread of a key, taking the wrong angle and losing leverage - but some will be, like Chase Pine’s gut-kick late hit penalty. That was absolutely brutal.
Pitt was up 13-10 in the third quarter and the defense had gotten off the field after forcing an incomplete pass. Pine was running down the sideline, staring Syracuse QB Eric Dungey right in the face, and he just laid him out - well after the ball had been thrown. Pat Narduzzi called it “unacceptable” after the game, and I’m sure he had even more choice words for Pine during the game.
Syracuse scored a touchdown on that drive and Browne got hurt two plays after the Orange touchdown. If you’re looking for a moment that truly change the course of the game, Pine’s penalty is one that sticks out.
Now, he was far from the only player to take a penalty on Saturday. Dewayne Hendrix had one and Mike Herndon had one, and those guys are both redshirt juniors. But you’d like to think that an experienced player wouldn’t make the mistake Pine did. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps you off the field, which is no good for a player like Pine who can probably help this defense.
I talked last week about how Pitt’s goals - at least externally - had changed over the course of the first month. The Coastal Division ceased to exist as a goal somewhere around the Oklahoma State or Georgia Tech game, and the new goal was bowl eligibility.
But to reach that goal, Pitt had to beat Syracuse. Absolutely had to beat them. Given the difficulty of the rest of the schedule, an opponent like the Orange, who are on the lighter end of the competition Pitt will face this season, had to go down as a “W” for the Panthers.
Now that Saturday’s game went as an “L,” though, you have to wonder about those goals. Bowl eligibility is still the one the team should be shooting for, but it looks pretty distant at this point. A 4-2 record in the final six games isn’t impossible but looking pretty damn difficult.
Right now, a 3-3 stretch would probably be a pretty viewed as a decent finish, even though it would result in a 5-7 record for the season.
You’ve certainly seen the news that Jay Symonds decided to renege on his Pitt commitment and flip to Stanford. I wasn’t aware that Stanford was looking at Symonds; obviously that’s a very appealing offer for him.
Pitt was recruiting Symonds to play the position George Aston plays - the H-back role, the adjuster in the offense. That’s a unique kind of position and it takes a unique player to fill it. As such, I’ll be interested to see what Pitt does going forward. I wonder if a guy on the roster could play that spot; Tyler Sear comes to mind. Matt Flanagan has essentially been doing it while Aston has been hurt, minus the handoffs, of course.
Ultimately, I think Symonds is a good player who filled a unique hole on Pitt’s future rosters. But there are a few other recruits I would have put ahead of him on the list of guys Pitt couldn’t afford to lose from the class. That’s not to totally downplay the decommitment (or maybe it is), but from reading the board, I think the reaction has generally been along those lines, too.