The 3-2-1 Column: Georgia Tech week

Chris Peak, Publisher
Panther-lair

MORE HEADLINES - Transcript: Narduzzi's Thursday press briefing | Free article: Through three games, Pitt's offense is not explosive enough | Inside the numbers: Who is Ben DiNucci's favorite target? | Pitt commit Chase Brown fills in last gap on official visit | Under the lights: How did Pitt's recruits perform over the weekend? | Free article: For second time in three years, Pitt prepares for midseason QB change

It's time for this week's Panther-Lair.com 3-2-1 Column, where we look at three things we know, two questions we have and one prediction heading into Pitt's game at Georgia Tech on Saturday.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

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Everybody should get a chance at running back
After three games and 90 rushing attempts from the position, no Pitt running back has separated himself from the others.

Qadree Ollison is the leading rusher with 193 yards on 44 carries for 4.4 yards per carry - the best by a running back. But he managed all of six yards on seven carries against Oklahoma State and still doesn’t seem to doing the things the coaches have hoped to get from him this season: namely, consistently breaking tackles and getting extra yards.

Chawntez Moss was Pitt’s leading rusher on Saturday, which amounted to all of 36 yards on 12 carries. He seems to be more explosive than Ollison, but he has had breakdowns in pass protection and has yet to gain more than 11 yards on a carry this season.

Darrin Hall has also gotten 19 carries this season - 13 of which came against Youngstown State - and has averaged less than four yards on those attempts.

All of this is to say that none of those backs has exactly seized the position; as such, the coaches should consider all options to be on the table. If Moss is the best back in the early going on Saturday, then feed him. If it’s Ollison, feed him. If it’s Hall, go with him.

And if none of them takes the reigns, then get AJ Davis onto the field for the first time since the season opener.

And if he doesn’t show anything, take Todd Sibley’s redshirt off.

Every option has to be available, because with Pitt’s offensive issues, an effective running game is an absolute must. So far, Pitt hasn’t been getting it.

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The safety positions will be very interesting
Jordan Whitehead’s suspension is over, and while that’s a big boost to the defense, it’s also nearly overshadowed by the battle brewing at the other safety position.

After spending spring camp and training camp learning the field safety position, Whitehead was listed on this week’s depth chart as an “OR” starter with Dennis Briggs at the boundary safety - the position Whitehead excelled in during his first two years at Pitt. That “OR” is a reflection of Whitehead’s status as a recently-reinstated player, and he should take the starting job back in short order.

But if Whitehead is going back to the boundary, what happens at the field safety spot?

Bricen Garner has started the first three games of the season at field safety and played well against Youngstown State and Penn State, graduating from a slight rotation in the opener to a full-time role in State College. But he didn’t have a great game against Oklahoma State - few Pitt defenders did - and the coaches rotated redshirt sophomore Jazzee Stocker at the field spot throughout the first half before giving it to sophomore Damar Hamlin for virtually every snap in the second half.

So what does the staff do now - stick with Garner, switch to Stocker or make the biggest change and put Hamlin in the starting lineup?

This week’s two-deep offered little clarity, listing Stocker and Garner as “OR” starters (which has been the case all season) and Hamlin as the top backup behind those two (which was the case heading into the Oklahoma State game).

The safest bet is that the coaches stick with Garner as the starter and then rotate from there. But a three-man rotation is rather uncommon at a position like safety, so would the coaches stretch it that far or would they send Hamlin back to the reserves?

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There shouldn’t be any surprise at quarterback After making the quarterback change in the second quarter last Saturday, it’s tough to imagine Pat Narduzzi going back to Max Browne.

Browne was benched after an uninspiring performance in the first half against Oklahoma State, which followed similarly-uninspiring showings against Youngstown State and Penn State. Those performances weren’t all his fault - he certainly didn’t get any help from his receivers, tight ends or offensive line - but for whatever reason, the offense just seemed to move better when Ben DiNucci was on the field (more on that in a second).

Now that the move was made, though, it seems like a done deal. The offense will move forward with DiNucci and, barring a cataclysmic breakdown, he’ll probably be the starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

Sure, it’s going to be a little awkward to have the backup quarterback go onto the field as a captain for the coin toss (it will be a testament to Browne if he handles it professionally, and there’s no reason to think he won’t), but at this point, DiNucci seems to have earned the starting job.

TWO QUESTIONS

Does DiNucci have a leash?
And our third “thing we know” leads into our first question:

How much would DiNucci have to struggle for Narduzzi to go back to Browne? Is there a level of ineffectiveness that would lead to such a move? This isn’t the first time Narduzzi has changed quarterbacks at midseason - he also did it a few games into the 2015 campaign when he went from Chad Voytik to Nate Peterman - but you don’t often see coaches go back to the guy they benched.

So if DiNucci gets the call, which is the expectation at this point, is it possible he could play himself out of the job? His passer rating is only slightly better than Browne’s. He’s got the same number of touchdowns and interceptions. And he actually has a lower completion percentage.

The biggest cases for DiNucci are that he is mobile and the general, slightly-vague notion that the offense “moves better with him.” And it’s true: the offense did seem to move better with him at quarterback. But as opponents can see more tape on the redshirt sophomore from Pine Richland and game plan for him, will things still move just as well?

Of course, the flip side is that DiNucci could play better with a full week of preparation as the starter and a full game to actually play. But if that doesn’t work out, if he throws multiple interceptions in this game as he did in the last one, if the offense sputters - which, as with Browne, might not be completely in DiNucci’s control - will Narduzzi change again?

And if he does, is it a foregone conclusion that he would go back to Browne? Or could the great unknown of redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie become a little more known with some game experience? These are questions Narduzzi would rather not have to answer, to be sure.

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How will Pitt’s youth on defense handle the triple-option?
This is a million-dollar question for Saturday’s game. Paul Johnson’s offense has always thrived on defenses making mistakes. When defensive players trust their eyes more than their assignments, mistakes happen and the triple-option goes off for a big play.

Paul Johnson loves to toy with what the defense is seeing, and when he looks at a defense with eight or nine first-year starters - including six in the front seven - he probably salivates, because he knows he’s got a good chance of manipulating those inexperienced players into misreading plays, over-pursuing and blowing assignments.

When these two teams met at Heinz Field last year, the Panthers had an experienced defense full of players who had lined up against the triple-option multiple times, and the results showed, as Georgia Tech’s 241 rushing yards were in the bottom third of the Yellow Jackets’ production on the season.

It does help that this will be the third rodeo against this offense for Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and the defensive staff. They’ve got a feel for how Johnson likes to operate, and while there will certainly be new wrinkles in the GT offense, the Pitt staff should have a pretty solid grasp on the basics.

So it will come down to the players staying true to their assignments and not getting caught up in all the things Johnson’s offense does to disrupt those assignments. Disciplined, assignment-sound defense can slow down the triple-option, but that can be tough for inexperienced players to master. Pitt’s defenders need to grow up in a hurry this week.

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ONE PREDICTION

The DiNucci double
So far this season, two of the three predictions in these 3-2-1 Columns have been about the quarterbacks - and both have been wrong. That makes me think I’m due, and I’m calling a couple scores for Ben DiNucci on Saturday. I think he’ll be responsible for two touchdowns at Georgia Tech, which would be the first time all season that a Pitt quarterback produced multiple scores all season.

Nate Peterman did it in nine games last season, including the Pinstripe Bowl when he rushed for one score and threw for another, and that’s probably the safest best on DiNucci - that he’ll run for one and throw for one.

Of course, there’s some assumption in there. We’re assuming DiNucci is the starting quarterback; that’s the easy assumption, and it will be a shock if he’s not. But we’re also assuming he can move the offense well enough to reach the end zone a couple times. With DiNucci at quarterback, Pitt has scored three touchdowns: he ran for a three-yard score at Penn State, threw a 14-yard touchdown to Rafael Araujo-Lopes in the second quarter on Saturday and was the quarterback when Chawntez Moss ran for Pitt’s first touchdown against Oklahoma State.

All told, he has been the quarterback during 10 possessions this season. Those possessions have resulted in three touchdowns, three punts, a missed field goal, two interceptions and one fumble (he was responsible for all three turnovers). That 3-for-10 success rate isn’t great, and for comparison, here’s Max Browne’s stat line: Browne played on 24 possessions and those 24 resulted in five touchdowns (including DiNucci’s score at Penn State, since Browne started that series), 10 punts, two interceptions, two made field goals, two missed field goals, one fumble, one safety and a turnover on downs.

So DiNucci’s drives have produced 22 points, or 2.2 points per possession. Browne’s drives produced 42 points (again, counting the first touchdown and two-point conversion at Penn State for both quarterbacks since they both played on that drive), or 1.75 points per possession.

As Pat Narduzzi said after the loss to Oklahoma State, Pitt doesn’t have a great quarterback. Not right now, at least. And whether DiNucci becomes a great quarterback remains to be seen, but we think he’ll find the end zone a couple times in Atlanta.

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