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Summer Scheming: Pitt Panthers Football

Pitt has been a tough out for Miami the past four seasons. The ‘Canes staff has to prove they can out-coach Narduzzi’s Panthers.

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Eastern Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Former Youngstown State and Rhode Island linebacker Pat Narduzzi has made his bones coaching on the defensive side of the football. Narduzzi became a defensive coordinator in 1998 at Rhode Island, and served in that role for two seasons. In 2003, Narduzzi became the DC at Miami (OH), moved on to Cincinnati from 2004-2006, Michigan State from 2007-2014, and has been the Pitt head coach since 2015. In five seasons, Narduzzi has won the ACC Coastal Division, taken Pitt to four bowl games, and compiled a 36-29 record.

Narduzzi followed now Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst, who finished 19-19 at Pitt. Narduzzi is a believer in the 4-2-5 defense, something he molded under Mark Dantonio while at Cincy and MSU. At Pitt it’s been a bit up and down but one thing has remained the same- the Panthers are playing great defensive football. According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ preseason rankings, the Panthers are 42nd overall, while ranking 103rd on offense and 12th on defense. Miami is 23rd overall, while projected to finish 63rd on offense and 9th on defense.


Pitt has three players on the Athlon preseason All-ACC first team. Center Jimmy Morrissey, defensive lineman Jalen Twyman, and safety Paris Ford. In 2019, the Panthers managed a lowly 21 points per game, which puts them at 114th of 130 FBS programs. However, quarterback Kenny Pickett returns for his 4th season in a staring role. Pickett threw for over 3,000 yards last season but managed only 13 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Eastern Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt must replace leading receiver Maurice Ffrench who caught 96 balls for 850 yards and four scores in 2019. Twyman, led the Panthers in tackles for loss and sacks a year ago with 12 and 10.5 respectively. He’s joined by Ford on the 1st team who had 90 tackles, three interceptions, and nine PBU’s.

Pitt also has 2nd team All-ACC players in defensive lineman Patrick Jones, and safety Damar Hamlin. Hamlin had 84 tackles and 10 PBU’s a year ago, while Jones logged 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season.

Pitt has three 3rd teamers, too. Offensive lineman Bryce Hargrove, defensive lineman Rashad Weaver, and cornerback Damarri Mathis. Weaver was injured for the 2019 season but finished 2018 with 14 TFL and 6.5 sacks. Mathis finished ‘19 with two interceptions and 11 PBU’s.

Scheme on O

The Pitt offensive coordinator’s name should look familiar to Miami fans, it’s Mark Whipple. Whipple, the ‘Canes OC from 2009-2010, was charged with grooming Jacory Harris to be the next great Miami QB, and seemingly failed. The Miami offense was a deep shot and a prayer scheme built on slow developing play-action passes (sound familiar?) and eventually collapsed.

Above, the Panthers run the standard 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) offense that is used 80-90% of the time at the NCAA and NFL levels. The Panthers didn’t run as much or as successfully as they had in the past with running backs like James Conner, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise with the pass-heavy Whipple at OC. If the GIF below from Miami-Pitt 2019 doesn’t give you flashbacks to 2010, what does?

Pitt didn’t hesitate to break out their trick plays, either. When the offense stalls you have to dig into your bag of tricks to get things going.

If I’m an opposing OC I’m forcing Manny Diaz’s defense to do two things: 1- stop Taysom Hill and 2- make him defend crossing routes. So your best bet is to force Manny’s over aggressive 5-techniques (defensive ends) to stay home, his undertrained linebackers to chase after QB’s. Manny “fixes” his issues with blitzing, and that will open up screens, and the middle of the field (see: every time Shaq Quarterman or Michael Pinckney were forced to cover).

Virginia Tech and Louisiana Tech both used crossing routes to score on the ‘Canes. Miami is extremely weak in two coverage areas: switching coverage responsibilities (see: the many blown coverages by defenders the past four seasons), and having linebackers not get lost on crossing routes. Any form of Shallow Cross or Mesh will do. The Miami linebackers are poor in coverage, don’t run very well, and are typically blitzing. Any pass concept that gets the ball out quickly and forces a LB to cover will work just fine.

Scheme on D

Pitt lives in the 4-2-5 defense. Narduzzi and Dantonio both could operate from 1 or 2 high safety looks. They do require their cornerbacks to be athletic and Narduzzi struggled at Pitt as he acquired and developed better players over the years. At this point his DB’s are All-ACC caliber and able to pull off the demands of his defense.

Below, Miami lived in 3rd and long situations in 2019, and Pitt took advantage of them all game. Pitt isn’t bringing as much pressure as they’re showing. Often, DC’s will signal “sugar” which tells defenders to line up to blitz but just get back to your original responsibility on the snap of the ball.

I actually like what Enos dialed up to the bottom of the screen in the shot below. I drew up the concept to the top of the screen. The arrow of the vert-arrow is open but the QB fails to see it and scrambles around instead. The linebacker couldn’t get to the flat in time and the CB turns his head and flips his hips to cover an outside release vertical.

Canyonero keys to victory

The first key to success in all Miami games in 2020 is to protect the QB. D’Eriq King can work magic if he has time. If Miami is going to be the Swiss cheese turnstiles they were in 2019, it’ll be another ugly game for the ‘Canes, win or lose.

The second key is to not get picked apart on crossing routes. If Whipple is smart he’s figuring out how to force two new linebackers to cover, switch coverage, and play in space. Zach McCloud flashed athleticism but was really poor in space prior to redshirting in 2019.

The final key for Miami is to attack space. The offense has to get better at attacking open spaces. I know that’s what both Dan Enos and Rhett Lashlee have promised, but they have to do it. One thing Coach Narduzzi is going to do is create confusion for the QB on who is blitzing and who is dropping.

Prediction: Miami by 3