Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Detailed Guide to #BeatPitt as Miami Tries to Bounce Back from Last Saturday in Another Crucial Intra-Conference Matchup
“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” – Rocky Balboa.
Similar to Rocky, Miami will have the chance to show how good they are at getting up after being knocked down. And even though many in the nation believe the Hurricanes showed their true colors on Saturday night against Clemson, a lot can be revealed about a team based on how they respond to a loss. Last year, for example, Miami had to show adversity the week after a loss on numerous occasions, and, for the most part, they actually did well at bouncing back. That is until they lost the final three games of the season, which was indicative of a team that essentially gave up down the stretch.
At this point, the ACC Coastal division title is still up for grabs, so every ACC game will be important on the Canes’ schedule, including a season finale against the nation’s 5th ranked team, UNC. However, before Miami starts thinking about an ACC title game or Bowl Games generally, the Hurricanes need to get back on track after last Saturday’s tough 42-17 loss. In order to show the first three games were not a fluke they need to continue to handily take care of business against opponents like the Pittsburgh Panthers, who they play tomorrow.
A mature Pitt team looked primed to make noise this season as they started the season with three straight wins. In the first two games, Pitt looked promising as they outscored the opponents by a combined score of 76-10. The Panthers then beat ranked opponent, Louisville, but by only three points, and reached an AP Poll high of 21st in the nation.
However, in the past two games Pitt has gotten bit by a bug that they haven’t been able to shed in recent years: losing games they should win (a trend that Miami has also suffered from in recent years). In back-to-back weeks of being favored, they lost to NC State 30-29 and Boston College 31-30, the latter of which ended after Pitt missed a PAT in OT. Pitt did not receive any AP votes at all this past week.
Based on the recent games, it may be easy to look at this game and sell the Panthers and their 3-2 record short. On paper, however, Pitt has the pieces and experience to get off the schneid. In addition, the Panthers statistics to date paint a picture of a respectable program and they typically have been a team that plays to other team’s levels. Manny Diaz agrees:
“Pitt’s had two one-point losses the last two weeks in almost freak-type games,” Diaz said during his Monday morning radio show appearance on WQAM. “Pitt’s a very good team, and defensively they got a lot of guys on their defense — this isn’t coach talk — they would start for Clemson. Their front seven is very experienced, a lot of fourth- and fifth-year seniors, and their safety, No. 12 (Paris Ford), is as good a safety as there is in our conference. Pitt can play. They have a very old team. Their quarterback is a senior, but these guys are good.”
Based on Pitt’s experience and top tier rush defense, this is not a game Miami can overlook – especially because they need to re-establish a running attack after last week’s poor play. Fellow StateoftheU colleagues, Dylan Sherry, Justin Dottavio, Wyatt Kopelman, Roman Marciante, and Cameron J. Underwood have detailed the U’s woes from Saturday: here are the links to the Sherry, Dottavio, Kopelman, Marciante, and Underwood’s articles.
For this week, Miami is currently favored to win by 13.5 and the over under is 48. The line moved three points mid-week as it was previously at -10.5 Miami. Kickoff is at 12:00PM from Hard Rock. Before delving deep into this week’s game, let’s take a look at the matchup’s history.
Miami has Pitt’s number historically by recording a 27-11-1 mark against the Panthers. This includes a record of 20-3 since 1984. Pitt joined the ACC in 2013 and has thus faced Miami more frequently in the last ten years, where Miami is 6-2. However, this includes the infamous Black Friday 24-14 Miami loss in the 2017 regular season finale. The U looked like they were back until that point, but, instead, Pitt played spoiler and it set up for a three loss skid to end what had been an impressive campaign to that point for the Canes.
Personnel Analysis and Style:
This is a huge year on the hot seat for Pitt head coach, Pat Narduzzi, who is in his sixth season at the helm for the Panthers. Narduzzi has collected a 39-31 record (26-18 in Conference), and, despite decent recruiting cycles, he has been unable to set Pitt apart in the mediocre Coastal division.
Mark Whipple is in his second season as Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks coach, where he will have another year of experience with their staple quarterback, Kenny Pickett. There may be reason why Whipple’s name sounds familiar and that’s because he was the offensive coordinator for the Canes in 2009 and 2010 in an offense that featured TE Jimmy Graham and WRs Leonard Hankerson and Travis Benjamin. Whipple already has an impressive resumé as somewhat of a quarterback guru, including coaching a young Ben Roethlisberger as the Pittsburgh Steelers QB Coach from 2004-2006. Roethlisberger attributed his professional development to Whipple’s tutelage. Whipple employs a mostly conventional, pro-style offense, and the scheme should be similar to last year, the analysis of which was depicted by my State of the U colleague, Justin Dottavio, in an article last year.
Defensive Coordinator, Randy Bates, is in his his third season as he leads a strong defensive corps that features a diesel pass rush. Narduzzi lost his head strength and conditioning coach, Dave Andrews, to Iowa State, who was one of his first hires at Pitt, but replaced Andrews with Michael Stacchiotti, who previously worked with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Last week, Miami could not get anything going with the run game against Clemson, who has the tenth best run defense in FBS. Pittsburgh features an even more stout run defense as they are ranked 2nd in the nation.
As a direct juxtaposition to the stout rushing offense and despite having a top tier SS in Paris Ford, the Panthers’ pass defense has been a notable blemish. Last week, the Panthers allowed BC QB, Phil Jurkovec, to record 358 passing yards and 3 TDs. BC’s WR, Zay Flowers, had 3 TD receptions for 162 yards. Jurkovec and Flowers both received ACC Honors this past week due to their performances. This is the perfect game for D’Eriq King to absolutely breakout passing-wise and begin targeting other weapons besides Brevin Jordan.
On the other side of the ball, Pitt’s offense is well-balanced in the pass game. However, the rushing offense has not created many opportunities at all. After getting run over by Travis Etienne, Miami’s rushing defense could use a confidence boost as Pitt also features a poor OL that the Canes should be able to dominate.
The Panthers roster is well-balanced across the board and is full of experienced players. Led by an established starter in Pickett on the offensive side and one of the most robust defensive lines, they are certainly a team that cannot be taken lightly. Specifically, they have a number of players returning, such as QB Kenny Pickett, C Jimmy Morrissey, S Damar Hamlin, DE Patrick Jones, and S Paris Ford, who all arguably could have opted for the NFL Draft. They did lose potential first round pick and DT, Jaylen Twyman, who opted out to train for the NFL draft. Morrissey, Jones, and Ford were all selected for the 2020 All-ACC Preseason Team.
Offensive Starters: (11 Personnel – One RB, One TE)
QB: Kenny Pickett, SR (6’2”, 220lbs): 109/181 (60.2%), 1389 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs, 119 yards rushing
RBs (committee): A.J. Davis, SR (6’0”, 215lbs): 20 carries for 84 yards or
Todd Sibley, Jr., Redshirt JR (5’9”, 225lbs): 9 carries for 31 yards, 1 TD or
Vincent Davis, Sophomore (5’8”, 175lbs): 74 carries for 242 yards, 3 TDs, 14 receptions for 97 yards
WR: Taysir Mack, Redshirt SR (6’2”, 205lbs): 13 receptions for 214 yards, 2 TDs
WR: Shocky Jacques-Louis, JR (6’0”, 185lbs): 12 receptions for 193 yards or
Jared Wayne, Sophomore (6’3”, 195lbs): 8 receptions for 112 yards, 1 TD
WR(Slot): Jordan Addison, Freshman (6’0”, 170lbs): 30 receptions for 297 yards, 3 TDs
TE: Lucas Krull, Redshirt SR (6’6”, 260lbs): 1 reception for 6 yards
LT: Carter Warren, Redshirt JR (6’5”, 325lbs)
LG: Bryce Hargrove, Redshirt JR (6’4”, 320lbs)
C: Jimmy Morrissey, Redshirt SR (6’3”, 305lbs) (Preseason All-ACC)
RG: Jake Kradel, Redshirt Sophomore (6’3”, 305lbs)
RT: Gabe Houy, Redshirt JR (6’6”, 300lbs)
Quarterbacks: Pitt has had a reliable fixture at quarterback over the past few years with Pickett, who played a key role in the 2017 upset over Miami. Pickett, who also attended the prestigious Manning Passing Academy last year, has started in 32 games at Pitt where he has accumulated 6,695 passing yards on 1026 pass attempts. Pickett threw 469 passes in 2019 compared to 310 in 2018, but his completion percentage increased from 58.1% to 61.6%, which likely correlated directly to his growth under Whipple’s scheme.
His mechanics appear to only be improving with another year under Whipple’s wing, as he has a 60.2% completion percentage to date for 1,389 yards (1st in the nation), but already has 8 TDs and only 3 INTs. Pickett also has the most completions on passes 20+ yards downfield with 16. Narduzzi noted Pickett has gotten banged up in the past two contests but has been able to return, so may be somewhat hampered on Saturday.
Should he experience any injury setbacks, the depth at QB does not feature much experience but Pitt does have two former three-star recruiting prospects in Redshirt Sophomore Nick Patti and Redshirt Freshman Davis Beville. They also feature Arizona State transfer and Redshirt Freshman, Joey Yellen, who was a four-star recruit. It is unclear who Pitt will use should Pickett not be ready to go but Beville and Yellen have already seen action this year. Pickett, similar to another Pittsburgh area staple and Whipple tutee, is a tough QB, so it would make sense if he played through whatever is bothering him.
Highest-graded Power 5 QBs in Wk 6:
1. Mac Jones, Alabama – 88.7
1. Myles Brennan, LSU – 88.7
3. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh – 86.2
4. Phil Jurkovec, Boston College – 84.2
5. Matt Corral, Ole Miss – 81.1 pic.twitter.com/kMStVppU3N
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 11, 2020
Running Backs: The backfield is probably the weakest segment of Pitt’s offense. Pitt returns its main contributor from last year in A.J. Davis, who was the go-to RB, amassing 530 yards for four touchdowns on 127 attempts, and also serves as a decent pass-catching back. However, the lead back to date has been another Davis, Vincent Davis, who only rushed 61 times for 314 yards last year. V. Davis has been the bell cow this season with 74 rushes for 242 yards and 3 TDs, as well as 14 receptions. A.J. Davis only has 20 rushes so far this season. However, it must be noted that, on Thursday, Coach Narduzzi pointed out he is finally back to 100%.
There have been other contributors in the RB-by-committee from less experienced but promising RBs. Redshirt freshman, Daniel Carter, who is from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, and true freshman Israel Abanikanda, both of whom were three-star recruits in 2019 and 2020, respectively have each scored a TD on 30 combined carries this season. Lastly, Todd Sibley has added a TD on 9 carries this season.
Wide Receivers: Despite losing his top target production-wise in Maurice Ffrench who had 96 receptions for 850 yards last season and also losing Aaron Mathews, who played in 13 games, Pickett has had plenty of reliable targets in his receiving corps. Namely, Pitt returned two big play receivers who can spread the field in Taysir Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis. Mack has hauled in 13 receptions for 214 yards and two scores while Jacques-Louis has contributed with 12 catches for 193 yards. Jared Wayne, who caught 18 passes for 261 yards last year, has also been a suitable option and mostly utilized in the slot.
However, it has been two offseason additions that have really shined in the passing attack. A true freshman slot WR, Jordan Addison, has been Pickett’s most reliable receiver as he has caught 30 passes for 297 yards and 3 TDs. Addison has drawn comparisons to Antonio Brown. Pitt also features Senior WR and transfer, DJ Turner, who leads the team in receiving yards with 331 yards on 18 receptions. With the multiple options, there’s no doubt Whipple will continue to utilize Pickett’s strengths to spread the field. Led by Addison and Turner, the Panthers will indubitably test Miami’s secondary that has been steady to date, even through its hiccups last week against the nation’s best QB.
However, similar to Miami’s WRs, Pitt’s pass catchers have been suffering from a case of the drops. Amongst Power Five QBs, Pickett leads with the most dropped passes with 16 – LSU’s Myles Brennan is second with 13 dropped passes thrown.
Tight Ends: Pitt landed a solid graduate transfer from University of Florida in fan favorite, Lucas Krull. Krull, a former junior college baseball pitcher, was expected to be an immediate contributor but has only amassed one reception. As a unit, the unheralded TE room has garnered an underwhelming 6 receptions for 41 yards.
Offensive Line: In addition to its experience at QB, RBs, and WR, Pitt brought back a common core in the trenches. This may not be a great thing as this is an OL that ranked 94th in nation according to Pro Football Focus in 2019, a season where they allowed 76 TFL and 29 sacks. In 2020, it has not appeared to have improved as they have allowed a nation worst 32 TFL and t-4th worst 9 sacks.
On the left side of the line, LT Carter Warren and LG Bryan Hargrove played in 13 games last season. On the right side, Gabe Houy, has experience at both the right guard and tackle positions, but was listed as starting RT going into this season. Jake Kradel is also returning after starting seven games last season at right guard. At center, Jimmy Morrissey has been a reliable fixture at the position for four years, including earning first-team All-ACC Honors in 2019, and was an All-ACC Preseason pick for 2020.
Defensive Starters: (4-3 Scheme)
DE: Patrick Jones II, Redshirt SR (6’5”, 260lbs) (Preseason All-ACC), 18 tackle, 7 Sacks
DT: Devin Danielson, Redshirt Sophomore (6’1”, 300 lbs): 11 tackles, 1 Sack
DT: Calijah Kancey, Redshirt Freshman (6’0”, 270lbs): 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 PD
DE: Rashad Weaver, Redshirt SR (6’5”, 270lbs): 15 tackles, 4.5 Sacks, 2 FF
Money LB: Phil Campbell III, Redshirt SR (6’1”, 220lbs): 19 tackles, 1.5 sacks
Mike LB: Wendell Davis, Redshirt Sophomore (6’2”, 240lbs): 4 tackles
Star LB: Cam Bright, Redshirt JR (6’0”, 215lbs): 18 tackles, 1.5 Sacks
CB: Marquis Williams, Redshirt Sophomore (5’8”, 175lbs): 16 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD
SS: Paris Ford, Redshirt JR (6’0”, 190lbs) (Preseason All-ACC): 27 tackles, 2 INTs
FS: Damar Hamlin, Redshirt SR (6’1”, 195lbs): 24 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD
CB: Jason Pinnock, SR (6’0”, 200lbs): 9 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PD
Defensive Line: Despite losing key players on their front line early in the season (Jaylen Twyman opt out, Keyshon Camp pre-season injury), they have held their own this year as the 2nd best run defense in the country allowing only 52.0 yards per game. Last year, Pitt was able to hold opponents to 4.4 yards per play, which ranked fourth nationally, they had 7.9 tackles for loss, which ranked ninth nationally, and recorded a whopping 51.0 sacks, which tied for first overall in the nation.
This year, Pitt is led by DE, Patrick Jones II, who has been quick to the quarterback as he has posted a nation-leading 7.0 sacks. Rashad Weaver has also been a steady returnee to date as he returns from a 2019 injury and has forced two fumbles and 4.5 sacks.
On the interior, Calijah Kancey and Devin Danielson have been decent contributors in the absence of Twyman.
Highest-graded teams vs the run
1. Pittsburgh – 91.1
1. Clemson – 91.1
3. Cincinnati – 90.1
4. Georgia – 87.2 pic.twitter.com/DoqBTh3dQH
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 9, 2020
Linebacker: At linebacker, Pitt lost Saleem Brightwell and Kylan Johnson last year. Sophomore, Sirvocea Dennis, has been a pleasant surprise with 29 tackles, including 6 for loss. They also brought back Phil Campbell III at Money LB, who has recorded 19 tackles, Wendell Davis, who got the nod at Mike LB, and Cam Bright at the Star LB slot. They also have experienced depth with Chase Pine and Brandon George.
Defensive Backs: As evident by points allowed and last week’s performance against BC and their passing game, this is the most glaring weakness of Pitt’s defense. The lone Panther who was drafted in 2019, CB Dane Jackson, leaves a void in the secondary, but they have returned plenty of experience here as well.
Paris Ford led the Panthers with 97 tackles last year as he earned first-team All-ACC Honors and leads the team with 2 INTs already this season. At FS, Damar Hamlin is also a force and has recorded 24 tackles, 1 INT, and 2 PD. At CB, Marquis Williams leads the team with 3 PD, while Damarri Mathis has recorded an INT.
Special Teams: Kicker, Alex Kessman, connected on 70.97% of field goals in 2019 and Pitt is not afraid to utilize him for long kicks as his highs for the past four seasons are 54, 55, 56, and 58 (this year). Kessman has not been as reliable this year as his FG percentage is 58.3% to date, and he missed the game tying XP last week. Like Miami’s recruitment of Lou Hedley at punter, Pitt recruited a standout Australian rules football player, Kirk Christodoulou, who has proven he is capable of handling punter duties for the Panthers and has average 46.4 yards per punt this year.
Most completions on passes 20+ yards downfield:
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh – 16
t2. Zach Wilson, BYU – 13
t2. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma – 13 pic.twitter.com/LFzwOZv1jG
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 13, 2020
Keys to a Miami Victory:
1. Disrupt Pitt and Whipple’s offensive rhythm by hurrying Pickett and showing Different Schemes in Coverage: With Pitt’s style of offense, Miami’s defensive front needs to be able to get Pickett out of a groove and not let him get comfortable in making deep throws. Confusing Pickett at the line of scrimmage and not allowing Whipple to employ a deliberate offensive air raid will be crucial in ensuring Pitt does not take control on the offensive side of the ball. This is especially true if Pickett is banged up from the past couple weeks of taking hits, so may struggle with evading pressure. Third down stops will also be key as Miami transfers, DE Jaelan Phillips and S Bubba Bolden, look to continue their early season success. Based on Pitt’s poor OL, this should be an easy key to execute on.
2. Win with the Long Ball by Protecting D’Eriq King to Help Establish a Rhythm: While Pitt is not known as a juggernaut across the board, they feature a physical and stout front-seven that is more than capable of breaking up the backfield. And despite not having the same personnel weapons as Clemson, Pitt will likely try to emulate the Tigers’ game plan by stacking the box and sending blitz packages (aka Blitzburgh). This is especially true because DL, Jones II, and LB, Dennis, are coming off of a week where they were named ACC DL and LB of the Week, respectively, so will look to carry the defense’s high intensity.
The Canes offensive front cannot get caught on their heels and must manufacture a clean pocket in order to allow D’Eriq King to get some consistency as a passer, something that was clearly missing last week. Miami’s run game was also a non-factor last week. If the rushing attack continues to struggle, then Lashlee, Likens, and Co. need to optimize King’s, and the offenses versatility, by winning the WR matchups in one-on-one coverage (an issue that was evident for Miami last week). As mentioned earlier, this is a huge opportunity for a Miami weapon not named Brevin Jordan to breakout against a subpar Pitt passing defense (i.e. Dee Wiggins, Mike Harley, Mark Pope, or Jeremiah Payton). #BeatPitt with the deep ball would be a nice added factor for this Miami team.
3. Field Position: This is not a dig at Lou Hedley by any means, but the Canes need to develop a rhythm on drives and generate momentum on offense. Out of their 14 drives in the 2017 game against Pitt, Miami punted or lost the ball as a result of a fumble on 12 of them, which included six straight punts to open up the second half.
Last week, on 13 possessions, 11 resulted in punts or turnovers. Getting the ball down field in an effective manner by creating solid drives, establishing field position, and capitalizing with scores, will be a key to a successful game against the Panthers.
Miami wins 38-17.