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Miami Hurricanes 2020 Game Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

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Miami Opens their ACC Slate on October 3 Against the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Canes look to Set the Tone for their ACC Season but also avenge a 2017 loss where Pitt played spoiler.

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Pitt at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Miami wants to win the ACC Coastal division, in-conference games are going to be crucial. After four out-of-conference games to start the 2020 season, they’ll open their ACC slate on October 3 against a Pittsburgh Panthers team that, on paper, has the pieces and experience to make a run for the Coastal crown. Pittsburgh, similar to Miami, has lost games they should have won and have won games they should have lost over the past few years. The epitome of the latter was on full display when Pitt took down Miami 24-14 in the 2017 regular season finale, a game where Miami was ranked second nationally and Pitt ended the season at a lowly 5-7.

The following year, Pitt conquered the hapless Coastal division finishing at 7-7 overall and 6-2 in the ACC. Then, last year, Pitt had a shot to defend the Coastal going into the final two weeks of the season but lost back-to-back games against Virginia Tech and Boston College, to finish a respectable 8-5 but tied with Miami at 4-4 in the ACC Coastal.

As Pitt and Miami enter 2020, both programs will try to eliminate errors to avoid beating themselves. But, the Coastal division is wide open and every ACC matchup will play a huge role in dictating who will take on the Atlantic Division Champion, which has proven to be an annual matchup against the heavily favored Clemson Tigers in recent years. Regardless, this early ACC matchup has big implications in their quest for the Coastal Championship, which, has recently resulted in a blowout loss against Clemson but has set up for a favorable bowl game (Miami lost 38-3 against Clemson in 2017 but played in the Orange Bowl and Pittsburgh lost 42-10 and went on to face Stanford in the Sun Bowl).

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.

Miami-Pitt Results Last Ten Years (6-2 Miami)

Date Result Score
Date Result Score
October 26, 2019 Win 16-12 Miami
November 24, 2018 Win 24-3 Miami
November 24, 2017 Loss 24-14 Pitt
November 5, 2016 Win 51-28 Miami
November 27, 2015 Win 29-24 Miami
November 29, 2014 Loss 35-23 Pitt
November 29, 2013 Win 41-31 Miami
September 23, 2010 Win 31-3 Miami

2020 Matchup:

For Pitt, this year’s October 3rd matchup in Miami is wedged between two home games against Duke and Notre Dame, which could be subject to change with the recent scheduling developments. However, this does not even appear to be Pitt’s toughest stretch of their schedule as they will face FSU, Virginia Tech, UNC, and Virginia in four straight weeks starting at the end of October, which will likely make or break their ACC schedule.

For Miami, the home game against Pitt was supposed to come on the heels of a road trip to East Lansing where they were face the out-of-conference Michigan State Spartans, but that appears likely to be cancelled. Miami is then slated to head to Wake Forest the week following their Pitt matchup.

Personnel Analysis and Style:

This is a huge year for Pitt head coach, Pat Narduzzi, who begins his sixth season at the helm for the Panthers. Narduzzi has collected a 36-29 record (24-16 in Conference), and, despite decent recruiting cycles, he has been unable to set them apart in a mediocre Coastal division.

Mark Whipple enters 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 sounds familiar as 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 entering 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.

Roster Analysis:

The Panthers roster is well-balance 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 on the defensive side, they are certainly a team that cannot be taken lightly. Specifically, they have a number of players returning, such as QB Kenny Pickett, DT Jaylen Twyman, C Jimmy Morrissey, S Damar Hamlin, DE Patrick Jones, and S Paris Ford, who all arguably could have opted for the NFL Draft. Twyman and Ford were listed as favorites for Sporting News 2020 college football Pre-season All-American First and Second Team, respectively.

Early Projected Offensive Starters: (11 Personnel - One RB, One TE)
QB: Kenny Pickett, SR (6’2”, 220lbs)
RBs: A.J. Davis, SR (6’0”, 215lbs) and Todd Sibley, Jr., Redshirt JR (5’9”, 225lbs)
WR1: Taysir Mack, Redshirt SR (6’2”, 205lbs)
WR2: Shocky Jacques-Louis, JR (6’0”, 185lbs)
WR3: Jared Wayne, Sophomore (6’3”, 195lbs)
TE: Lucas Krull, Redshirt SR (6’6”, 260lbs)
LT: Carter Warren, Redshirt JR (6’5”, 325lbs)
LG: Bryce Hargrove, Redshirt JR (6’4”, 320lbs)
C: Jimmy Morrissey, Redshirt SR (6’3”, 305lbs)
RG: Gabe Houy, Redshirt JR (6’6”, 300lbs)
RT: Jake Kradel, Redshirt Sophomore (6’3”, 305lbs)

Quarterbacks: Unlike the Canes, 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 27 games at Pitt where he has accumulated 5,576 passing yards on 845 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 should only improve with another year under Whipple’s wing. Behind Pickett and based on his stability, the depth at QB does not feature much experience but does have two former three-star recruiting prospects in Redshirt Sophomore Nick Patti and Redshirt Freshman Davis Beville.

Running Backs: In the backfield, Pitt returns its main contributor in A.J. Davis, who was the go-to RB last season, amassing 530 yards for four touchdowns on 127 attempts, and also serves as a decent pass-catching back. The team also returns depth at the position with Vincent Davis, who rushed 61 times for 314 yards and Todd Sibley who rushed 50 times for 249 yards last year. V. Davis was able to punch it in for a score five times. Pitt also has less experienced but promising RBs in redshirt freshman, Daniel Carter, who is from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, and incoming freshman Israel Abanikanda, both of whom were three-star recruits in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

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 plenty of targets in his receiving corps. Namely, Pitt returns two big play receivers who can spread the field in Taysir Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis. Jared Wayne, who caught 18 passes for 261 yards last year, will also be a suitable option and mostly utilized in the slot. Pitt also features Tre Tipton, a sixth-year senior, who has been plagued by injury, Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, and Jordan Addison, who is a four-star freshman. With these options, there’s no doubt Whipple will utilize Pickett’s strengths to spread the field.

Tight Ends: Pitt landed a solid graduate transfer from University of Florida in fan favorite, Lucas Krull. Krull, a former junior college baseball pitcher, will have an immediate impact as a big target in an unheralded tight end room.

Offensive Line: In addition to its stability at QB and returning RBs, Pitt brings back solid experience in the trenches. 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. Jake Kradel is also returning after starting seven games last season at right guard. At center, Jimmy Morrissey has been a fixture at the position for four years, including earning first-team All-ACC Honors in 2019. The right tackle spot seems to be the most competitive position on the line after Nolan Ulizio, who started 13 games at the position, has graduated. Pitt also has depth with Hampton graduate transfer Keldrick Wilson, who may compete for the right tackle position, Carson Van Lynn, who also has experience at Tight End, and redshirt Junior, Owen Drexel, who has experience at the interior positions.

Early Projected Defensive Starters: (4-3 Scheme)
DE: Patrick Jones II, Redshirt SR (6’5”, 260lbs)
DT: Jaylen Twyman, Redshirt JR (6’2”, 290lbs)
DT: Keyshon Camp, Redshirt SR (6’4”, 295lbs)
DE: Deslin Alexandre, Redshirt JR (6’4”, 270lbs)
Money LB: Cam Bright, Redshirt JR (6’0”, 215lbs)
Mike LB: Chase Pine, Redshirt SR (6’2”, 250lbs)
Star LB: Phil Campbell III, Redshirt SR (6’1”, 220lbs)
CB: Damarri Mathis, SR (5’11”, 195lbs)
SS: Paris Ford, Redshirt JR (6’0”, 190lbs)
FS: Damar Hamlin, Redshirt SR (6’1”, 195lbs)
CB: Jason Pinnock, SR (6’0”, 200lbs)

Defensive Line: While Miami boasts possibly the best defensive line in the nation, Pitt’s front four is primed for a big season. Last year, Pitt was able to hold opponents to 4.4 yards per play, which ranked fourth nationally, had 7.9 tackles for loss, which ranked ninth nationally, and had a whopping 51.0 sacks, which tied for first overall in the nation. They lose a key contributor in starting tackle, Amir Watts, but they have one of the top defensive tackles in the nation returning in Jaylen Twyman. Twyman led the Panthers with 10.5 sacks last year and also was an All-America Candidate.

On the ends, Pitt returns Patrick Jones II, who was quick to the quarterback as he posted 8.5 sacks, and Deslin Alexandre who started all 13 games. For depth at end, Habakkuk Baldonado and John Morgan return after a year as role players. Pitt has strong depth at end with Keyshon Camp and Rashad Weaver, who both return after injuries in 2019.

For additional depth, they also feature a trio of three-star prospects from their 2019 recruiting class who all red-shirted last season as true freshman in Calijah Kancey, a three-star recruit from Miami Northwestern, Deandre Jules, and Bam Brima.

Linebacker: At linebacker, Pitt lost Saleem Brightwell and Kylan Johnson. However, they bring back Phil Campbell III at Star LB, who recorded 56 tackles last season, Chase Pine, who should get the nod at Mike LB, and Cam Bright, who has seen action in a reserve role but is the favorite to take over the Money LB slot. They also have significant and experienced depth with Wendell Davis, Brandon George, and SirVocea Dennis, who all saw action last year.

Defensive Backs: The lone Panther who was drafted in 2019, CB Dane Jackson, leaves a void in the secondary, but they return 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 returns at Strong Safety. At Free Safety, Damar Hamlin is also a force and returns. Meanwhile, at CB, Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock saw plenty of action last year, each recording 14 pass breakups, and round out a decent secondary.

The depth here consists of Marquis Williams, AJ Woods, Erick Hallett, and John Petrishen, who all saw action last year.

Special Teams: Kicker, Alex Kessman, connected on 70.97% of field goals and Pitt is not afraid to utilize him for long kicks as his highs for the past three seasons are 54, 55, and 56. 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.

Keys to a Miami Victory:

Disrupt Pitt and Whipple’s offensive rhythm by hurrying Pickett and showing different schemes in coverage: With Pitt’s style of offense, Quincy Roche and Gregory Rousseau need to be able to get Pickett out of a groove. Confusing Pickett at the line of scrimmage and not allowing Whipple to employ a deliberate offensive attack will be crucial in ensuring Pitt does not take control on the offensive side of the ball.

Protect D’Eriq King and the Miami backfield: While Pitt is not known as a juggernaut across the board, this game is likely to be the biggest test for a Miami Offensive Line that has struggled in recent years. Pitt features a stout front-four, so the Canes offensive front cannot get caught on their heals and must manufacture a clean pocket in order to allow D’Eriq King and the Miami backs to effectively employ the spread offense.

Keep the Punter off the field: This is not a dig at Lou Hedley by any means, but the Canes need to develop a routine 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. 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.

Prediction:
Miami wins 33-23.