The Panther-Lair.com 3-2-1 Column: Rice week

Chris Peak, Publisher
Panther-lair

MORE HEADLINES: Narduzzi on Rice's D, Pitt's QB's, the FBI arrests and more | Video: Narduzzi's final talk before Rice | Film breakdown: Rice will bring a familiar look to Heinz Field | Narduzzi: "Our passing game will be a threat" | Trio of receivers emerges as top producers for Pitt

The Panther-Lair.com 3-2-1 Column is back, and we're looking at three things we know, two questions we have and one prediction heading into Pitt's game against Rice this weekend.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

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1-3 isn’t surprising - but the offense is
Before the season, it was fair to concede that a 1-3 start was realistic, and quite a few predictions for the 2017 record on this site took such a possibility into consideration.

Given the caliber of teams Pitt would face in the first third of the season, in fact, a 1-3 record might have even qualified as “probable” more than “possible,” and sure enough, it has come to pass. As such, the mere existence of the 1-3 record doesn’t necessarily portend a change in predictions for the season record.

But the offense does.

Because if any one unit on the team has underperformed, failed to live up to expectations and generally disappointed, it has been the offense. The defense was going to struggle in September; we knew that. With the personnel losses and inexperienced youth - talented as it may be - going against the dangerous and difficult offenses of Penn State, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech, the numbers probably weren’t going to look great for the defense in the first four games.

But the offense - the offense was supposed to be better. As good as last season? Probably not. But also not as bad as it has been, ranking No. 110 nationally in scoring (a ranking that credits Pitt with 20.0 points per game, when in reality the Panthers’ offense is averaging 14.2), No. 87 in passing offense, No. 97 in rushing offense, No. 108 in total offense and No. 105 in third-down conversions.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The offense took some blows in personnel losses, but there were supposed to be adequate replacements - new starters who might not be as good as the starters who left, but still good enough to have some success.

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This is a good week for a ‘get right’ game
Given the option, it probably would have been better to schedule Rice earlier in September. Even last week would have been good, pushing back the start of ACC play one week and allowing Pitt a week to lick its wounds after Penn State and Oklahoma State.

As it worked out, though, the scheduling left a week between Oklahoma State and Rice - a hole that would only be filled by an ACC opponent. So the non-conference gauntlet rolled right into a tough conference game on the road, leading to that 1-3 record we discussed above.

Now Pitt gets to finish September with Rice, a team with a similar 1-3 record but not a similar schedule. The Owls opened with a loss to Stanford in Australia, beat UTEP on the road and then suffered back-to-back losses to Houston and FIU in the last two weeks, falling by a combined score of 51-10.

No opponent can be overlooked; we know that and we all saw Youngstown State take this Pitt team to overtime in Week One. But Youngstown State as a program has exactly one fewer win over Power Five teams in the last five seasons as Rice does; the Penguins beat Pitt in 2012 and the Owls beat Kansas that year and in 2013.

In the last 10 seasons entering 2017, Rice has three wins over Power Five teams: those two Kansas games and a game against Purdue in 2011. Including the loss to Stanford this year, the Owls are 3-24 against current Power Five teams dating back to 2007 and have lost their last eight in a row.

Again, Pitt can’t take any team lightly, but this is one the Panthers should be able to win convincingly, and it’s coming at just the right time. Sandwiched as it is between the September gauntlet and the deep dive into conference play, this Rice game is a perfect opportunity for Pitt to iron out issues on both sides of the ball, but more importantly, to build some confidence, which is probably lacking in a few areas.

Sure, Pitt’s players and coaches won’t betray those thoughts and say that they wonder if the offense can score more than two touchdowns in a game. But the last three games have shown an offense that is woeful in its attempts to move the ball, and at a certain point, those concerns have to creep in. Pitt simply couldn’t do anything against Georgia Tech after the first drive, but this game should give the Panthers an opportunity to get a little mojo on that side of the ball. Rice is No. 100 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 31.8 points per game, and outside the top 50 in rush defense and total defense (not to mention No. 108 in passing yards allowed and No. 109 in pass efficiency defense).

If Pitt’s offense is going to take some steps forward, it has to start this week.

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The quarterback rotation is fine for now
It’s not ideal to have a rotation at quarterback entering the fifth game of the season, but as Pitt appears to be ready to shift back to Max Browne, it’s not a terrible thing.

Sure, it would be better if the Panthers had a clear-cut leader at the most important position on the field, someone who stepped up and grabbed the reigns, establishing a clear identity as The Quarterback. That hasn’t happened through the first four games, despite ample opportunities for both Browne and Ben DiNucci.

And that’s the key: they’ve both had ample opportunities. Browne and DiNucci have each appeared in at least 20 drives, and they’ve each played an extended amount of continuous possessions in multiple games (Browne played all of the opener, most of the second game, less than half of the third game and the final quarter of the fourth game; DiNucci played a bit at the end of the second game, more than half of the third game and ¾ of the fourth game).

If either quarterback was going to find a rhythm and “move the offense” - the catchphrase for a Pitt quarterback needs to do this season - there were plenty of chances to do it. And neither did.

The play-calling has been more or less the same for both quarterbacks, with Browne averaging three pass attempts per possession and DiNucci averaging 2.65. And the results have been more or less the same: one touchdown for Browne, two for DiNucci, two interceptions for each, 1.6 points per possession for DiNucci and 1.56 for Browne.

In their most recent appearances, DiNucci completed 12-of-19 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in three quarters of work at Georgia Tech and Browne went 10-of-15 for 88 yards in the fourth quarter. Both quarterbacks checked down too much for Pat Narduzzi’s liking, although Browne connected on four passes that gained 14 yards or more, while DiNucci had two.

The simplest distinction between Browne and DiNucci continues to be that Browne has the better arm and DiNucci is more mobile. If the pass protection can improve, then Browne is probably the better option. If it can’t, then life isn’t going to get any easier for the offense.

Either way, the coaches can and probably will continue trying both quarterbacks, giving each of them the chance to seize the job.

TWO QUESTIONS

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Can everyone else help the quarterback succeed?
The 2017 season isn’t going to get back on the right track until and unless the quarterback situation gets straightened out. But it’s never just on the quarterback, and Pitt in 2017 is a clear example. Because while both Browne and DiNucci have been unimpressive, they have been hamstrung by a variety of factors, from the receivers to the tight ends to the running backs to the offensive line to the coaching and play-calling.

Basically, nothing has worked on offense, and every player on the unit shares some level of blame.

So if the coaches do go back to Browne, will the offensive line block for him? Will the receivers and tight ends start making catches when he puts the ball in their zip code, even if the catch has a high degree of difficulty? Will the running backs step up their effectiveness in both blitz pickup and the run game? Will Shawn Watson put him in the best position to succeed?

To start, Browne and/or DiNucci need their intended targets to bring in the ball when it’s near them. As a deep-pass option, Jester Weah’s catch rate was never going to be as high as a possession receiver, but when Weah is sub-40% on 21 passes thrown his way four games into the season, he’s not helping his quarterback enough. And that’s just one example; every game this season has seen Weah and others drop passes that were in reach.

Given the paucity of throws downfield, the ones that do get there have to be caught.

The offensive line has its own share of issues from one end to other, too, and while some of those issues might not be solved by year’s end, the coaches won’t stop trying to figure them out. The solution is probably some combination of numbers and quick throws, using quick throws to get a few yards (which can help supplant the ineffective running game) and then keeping more blockers in on deeper drops, at least until the play up front improves.

There’s no question that Browne and DiNucci have to play better in all areas related to their position, but on those occasions when they do play well, they need to have the other 10 guys on the field and the one upstairs in the booth doing well, too.

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Can the defense put together its best game in 10 months?
Pitt’s defense has had its issues over the last 4 or 13 or 17 or more games; everybody knows that. But the unit has had its moments as well, most recently in the 56-14 win over Duke at Heinz Field last November. In that game, the Blue Devils scored just one offensive touchdown, had 25 yards of net rushing and threw for 243 yards while converting 4-of-14 third downs.

By the numbers, Rice’s offense is probably worse right now than Duke’s was a year ago. The Owls are averaging 12 points per game, tied for No. 125 nationally and ahead of only Charlotte, Kent State and BYU. Their rushing offense ranks No. 63, and that’s the high-water mark for the season when compared with the passing offense (121.8 yards per game, No. 122 nationally), the team passing efficiency (No. 126) and the total offense (292 yards per game, No. 118). Rice is ranked in the bottom 30 nationally in third-down conversions, red zone scoring and first downs gained.

In three losses against Stanford, Houston and UTEP, the Owls scored a total of 17 points and averaged two turnovers per game.

So if ever there were a game when Pitt’s young defense could find a little success and maybe build some confidence, this should be it.

ONE PREDICTION

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Pitt will get the passing game going this week
Another week, another prediction about the passing game; I don’t know why I keep doing this, particularly when I have a sneaking suspicion that the coaches will try to load up the rushing attack for this one. That’s not a terrible idea, and if Pitt can come out of Saturday’s game with 250 rushing yards or so, I’m sure everyone will be happy.

And they should certainly try to get the ground game going early on. I won’t deny that, because that element has been lacking. But when you look at Rice’s strengths and weaknesses, one that stands out significantly is the pass defense. Granted, the Owls do have 13 sacks this season - the 13th-most in the nation - but that is really their only advantage against the pass, because when teams are able to protect the quarterback and get the ball off, it usually connects.

Through four games, Rice’s opponents are hitting on 66.2% of their passes for an average of 12.2 yards per completion and 274.5 yards per game - stats that put the Owls near the bottom of the FBS. Pitt needs to take advantage of that; naturally, the Panthers will have to start by neutralizing the pass rush, and then the need to hit some shots of their own.

Pitt absolutely needs to come out of this game with momentum on offense and, more acutely, in the passing game. To fall back on the run and control the game that way would be missing an opportunity that could set the team up for the final seven games.

So we’re saying that Pitt will get the passing game going this week, maybe to the tune of a couple touchdowns and a decent chunk of yardage (let’s say 200+, just to keep the bar low). And we’re also saying that Pitt needs to get the passing game going before heading to the Carrier Dome next week.

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