The Pitt Panthers slid into the ACC Championship Game with a 7-5 record and finished the 2018 season 7-7 and ranked 61st per the S&P+. Pitt holds a pre-season S&P+ ranking of 59th, showing slight improvement from a year ago. Pat Narduzzi has amassed a 28-24 overall record at Pitt, but has finished 0-3 in bowls. Had the Panthers not back-doored into the ACC CG, maybe he would be on the hot seat, but that one appearance will buy him time unless there’s a massive fall into a three win or less year.
Personnel and Scheme
The Panthers are going to be led by junior quarterback Kenny Pickett, the hero of the 2017 upset win over Miami. Pickett had a pedestrian season in 2018 completing 58-percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. Pickett averaged only 6.4 yards per attempt on the season. However, he had a strong final stretch of the regular season and that growth could lead to good things in 2019.
The Panthers new offensive coordinator should be a familiar name to Miami fans, it’s Mark Whipple. Whipple came to Coral Gables in 2009 and left after the 2010 season. Whipple was known for his time as the national championship winning UMass head coach (when they were in the FCS), and a quarterback coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers before coming to Miami. Since his two year stint with the ‘Canes he’s coached QB’s for the Cleveland Browns, returned to UMass as head coach, and now is with the Pitt Panthers.
Coach Whipple’s base personnel grouping is 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end). Whipple, however, likes to formation and motion is players around to create busted coverages and confusion for the defense. Miami fans think of Whipple for his penchant for long developing plays and deep balls, but at UMass during his second stint he ran a more completion-friendly offense built around shallow crosses, hitches and dig routes. His QB’s completed 64% of their combined passes for 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while averaging 9.3, 7.7 and 10 yards per attempt on the season.
New concept for me
Whipple’s offense, against FIU, ran a newer concept for me. I hadn’t seen a dig from number one (the outside WR), a shallow cross from number two (slot receiver) and a deep curl from number three (the inside receiver) before. The concept works well as it gets the slot open while the linebackers are locked on the shallow concept and the cornerback is preoccupied with the dig.
As the QB drops back his first target, that he must hit at the end of his drop, is the curl (aka his rhythm route). The QB looks off the linebackers by looking left and dragging them over to the shallow. He misses a wide open slot to the left side but I’m assuming it’s just a decoy on the progression.
If the curl was covered, the QB would hitch up and look at the dig route to #1. If pressure got him he would’ve thrown that arrow route quickly as his rush route. It took timing and accuracy to get the throw for the curl over that linebacker and in front of defensive backs.
How do you develop that timing and accuracy? In the settle and noose drill. Settle and noose is a Hal Mumme and Mike Leach staple from the Air Raid offense. It is a great way for QB’s and receivers to get a lot of quality reps, while working on the finer points like ball placement in order to throw a receiver open in space. For instance, in the GIF above the QB has to throw high and inside to get over and away from the linebacker’s drop.
Receivers work back and forth and once they settle the quarterback has to throw the ball open and away from the defenders. It’s a great drill done in a tight space allowing for max reps.
Zone running scheme
Mark Whipple has added other wrinkles to his offense. Throughout the UMass versus FIU game I saw split zone, weak stretch, and draw. I also saw an inside zone read where the fullback wraps around and arcs up (similar to split zone).
Above- you can see the play art of the two-back split flow inside zone read. The fullback’s job is to lead block for the QB if he pulls. Why does he need a lead blocker? Because defenses will “scrape exchange” or switch jobs for their defensive end and weak linebacker. In other words, the defensive end will “squeeze” or play the running back really hard, giving the QB a “pull” read to run the football. Then BAM, he runs into a linebacker who switched roles to taking the C-gap (gap outside the offensive tackle’s shoulders) while the defensive end took the B-gap (gap between the tackle and guard).
The issue is, the QB makes a poor read on the play (seen below) and still manages to get yardage by getting outside of the defensive end. The end “sits” or stays in his C-gap, so the QB should hand the ball off. He makes a poor read but it works out for him.
In the GIF, you can see the wrap block to arc up field from the fullback, the defensive end sit, the QB pull and run and how the arc block worked up field because the FB blocks the safety and gives the QB downfield assistance.
I’m assuming that much like with Matt Canada, Pat Narduzzi is going to give Mark Whipple a wide open playbook where he can choose what he wants to run. Kenny Pickett could be a QB that Whipple tutors into a +60% completion and +7 yards per attempt passer. If he does, Pitt could be a force in the Coastal again and force teams with new head coaches like Georgia Tech, UNC and Miami out of the ACC Championship Game once again.
Prediction: Miami by 14