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Pittsburgh Put a Damper on Miami’s 2017 Season, Can the Canes Return the Favor and Play Spoiler in 2021?

The Panthers’ Kenny Pickett Was a True Freshman in the Infamous Black Friday Game But Now he is a Heisman Candidate, Miami Looks to Reverse the Roles

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, the U looked like they were back as they ran the table through the first ten games heading into Pittsburgh against the Panthers in their regular season finale. The nation’s then number-two ranked Canes controlled their own destiny to get to a potential playoff appearance and just needed to complete the regular season slate at Heinz Field (granted the Canes had some evident flaws and escaped close games to that point).

The 4-7 Panthers, on the other hand, were playing for nothing. However, then-true freshman quarterback, Kenny Pickett, played the best game of his young career as he ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, in the shocking 24-14 Pitt victory over the 10-0 Canes - a Miami team which, to that date, featured a dominant defensive cohort.

Fast forward to 2021 where fifth-year quarterback, Pickett, is now making his case as a Heisman candidate and the 6-1 Panthers are ranked 17th in the country. They’re not quite yet in the playoff hunt, but Pitt is having one of their best season’s in program history as they are definitely in striking distance of not only the ACC crown, but also a New Year’s Six Bowl.

And, even though only a small portion of players on the 2021 roster were on the Canes’ 2017 team (Zach McCloud, Mike Harley, Navaughn Donaldson, Corey Gaynor, Waynmon Steed, Jonathan Ford, and Bradley Jennings Jr.), the same desire to turn the tables and avenge the shocker from four years ago remains.

This is especially true for head coach, Manny Diaz, who was serving as defensive coordinator at the time when the Turnover Chain was making waves throughout the country. Now, however, Diaz is feeling the pressure from the Miami fanbase as the unranked Canes seek to power their way back in a weak ACC Coastal after a 3-4 start. On Saturday, Miami players hope to do what the Panthers did to the Canes four years ago.

On that note, Pitt has already been surprised once this season by an inferior opponent but is currently 3-0 in the ACC, which includes a convincing win last week in Death Valley against Clemson. Pitt’s season has consisted of a win over SEC competition in Tennessee, but their lone loss came in an upset to MAC competition, Western Michigan.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same:

Although four years have passed since the Pitt upset, a lot of similarities remain as the Canes seek to pull off an upset. A Miami win would also mark their eighth victory over the Panthers in the last 10 contests (28-11-1 Miami all time), as well as the fourth straight win.

As far as similarities spanning back to the infamous Black Friday game, both programs still appear to be plagued by losing games they should have won. For example, even though Pitt has avoided beating themselves this year, the 44-41 loss to Western Michigan indicates they may have tendencies of reverting back to the Pitt most of us have come to know.

Turnover Issues:

Specific to Miami, the mistakes have been plentiful this season, including failing to develop a routine and generate momentum on offense - this is in spite of last week’s progress against NC State. Despite different personnel, this same issue was readily apparent in the 2017 game: out of their 14 drives 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.

To that end, turnovers were the theme for the dominant 2017 Canes. Miami wreaked havoc on many opposing quarterbacks, but Pickett proved to be turnover-proof that game. Similarly, Pickett has only thrown one pick on the season, compared to his 23 passing touchdowns, as well as three rushing scores.

With Pitt’s style of offense, Miami’s front seven needs to have a breakout game and keep Pickett out of a groove. Last year, for example, Pickett was dealing with an injury but Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips (and Gregory Rousseau the year before) confused Pickett at the line of scrimmage and did not allow Pitt’s staff to employ a deliberate offensive attack. Pitt will take control of the game on the offensive side of the ball if this slips away.

Coaching Role Reversal:

Similar to Diaz, Panthers’ head coach, Pat Narduzzi, has been on the hot seat for the better part of the past seven seasons during his tenure with Pitt. Prior to this season, Narduzzi has led Pitt to a collective 45-34 record. Even with decent recruiting cycles and NFL placement lately, he has been unable to set the team apart in a mediocre Coastal division - that is until this year.

Outside of Narduzzi, there is a big reason why Pickett has truly come into his own: Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach, Mark Whipple. Whipple, who is in his third season of working with Pickett, should sound like a familiar name to Canes’ fans as he was the offensive coordinator for the Canes in 2009-2010 in an offense that featured tight end Jimmy Graham, and wide receivers 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. The recent results speak volumes as Pitt ranks fourth in the country in EPA per play.

As mentioned above, scheme will be important in the offensive vs. defensive chess match, assuming Miami can rise to the occasion a la the 2017 Canes. Diaz is on the hot seat now and will need to plan appropriately with the talent he has on the field. Diaz is well aware of the task at hand as, this week, he called Pickett “arguably the best quarterback in the country.”

Pickett’s Heisman Quest With All The Right Weapons:

Pickett has been a reliable fixture at quarterback since he played a key role in the 2017 upset over Miami and has only elevated that status under Whipple. Pickett, who attended the prestigious Manning Passing Academy in 2019, has improved his completion percentage under Whipple’s scheme (improved from 58.1% in 2018 to 61.6% in 2019 and is now a very-efficient 68.9% in 2021 - his quarterback rating has also jumped from 129.6 to 176.1 since last year). His mechanics have improved drastically under Whipple’s wing as he has gone from undrafted free agent to now being projected as a potential first round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft (NFL Draft guru, Mel Kiper Jr., named Pickett his highest-ranked quarterback for next year).

The mostly pro-style system has also worked wonders for Pickett’s favorite target, wide receiver, Jordan Addison, who has turned this offense into a lethal high octane aerial attack. Addison burst on the scene last year as a true freshman as he averaged 11.1 yards a catch and had four touchdowns in ten contests as he earned the number one role ahead of veterans Taysir Mack, Shockey Jacques-Louis, and Jared Wayne.

Not only has Addison kept up his production in 2021, but has improved drastically - the wideout who has drawn comparisons to Antonio Brown has already surpassed his yardage from last year (670 receiving yards) and has 10 touchdowns on 17.2 yards a catch through seven games. It must be noted that Addison is listed as questionable, but if he plays, he’s a cheat code.

Tight ends are also important in a pro-style offense and Florida graduate transfer, Lucas Krull, has apparently found his bearings at Pitt. Krull, a former junior college baseball pitcher, was expected to be an immediate contributor last year but did not do much. In 2021, however, Krull has amassed 19 receptions for 240 yards and five touchdowns.

Regardless of doors it may open for younger players, losing Bubba Bolden is tough. Even though he may have been hampered by injuries this season, he is a leader on the defense. A veteran on the back line of the defense would have been huge for this game. Players like James Williams, Kamren Kinchens, and Avantae Williams are going to need to patrol Pickett and company.

The ACC Coastal Crown Is Somehow Still Up for Grabs...

Tyler Van Dyke is hot off the best game of his career. And while Pitt lost Jalen Twyman, Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones II, Damar Hamlin, and Jason Pinnock from last year, who were all drafted in 2021, they return players who can cause problems across the formation in Brandon Hill, Sivocea Dennis, Cam Bright, Keyshon Camp, and Deslin Alexandre.

Crazy as it sounds after Miami’s tepid play and two tough nailbiting losses against ACC competition, the ACC Coastal is still very much in play as “pathemiticians” look at Miami’s chances of storming back. That path, however, will vanish if Miami surrenders to Pitt.

Revenge is a dish best served cold. As an early winter nor’easter storms through the northeast this weekend, it seems like a good time for a Hurricane to make its way to Heinz Field.

Canes 27-22