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Summer Scheming ‘21: Pittsburgh Panthers

Pitt took a step back in ‘20 after their 2019 Coastal championship.

Quick Lane Bowl - Pittsburgh v Eastern Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Pat Narduzzi left Michigan State, where he was the defensive coordinator, to become the head football coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers right in the middle of MSU’s historic run. The Spartans were coming off of a Rose Bowl winning season in 2013 and a Cotton Bowl winning season in 2014. Narduzzi went east to Pitt and the Spartans put together their College Football Playoff semifinal season in 2015, but then collapsed over the better part of Mark Dantonio’s final four seasons in East Lansing.

Coach Narduzzi was building something new at Pitt. Narduzzi won eight games as the head coach at Pitt in 2015, 2016, and 2019. Before Narduzzi took over, the Panthers hadn’t won eight or more games since the 2010 season under Dave Wannstedt when the program was still in the Big East.

Info: Miami @ Pitt, at Heinz Field

Day/Time/Channel: October 30, 2021 / TBD / TBD

Narduzzi’s Panthers won the ACC Coastal in 2018, but I doubt have the firepower to win the division in 2021. Miami, UNC, and UVA all could score too many points for the hapless Pitt offense.

Historically, Miami has a 28-11-1 lead in the all-time series against the Pitt Panthers. Unlike many of the other ACC teams, Miami and Pitt have played fairly regularly since 1950 when Miami beat Pitt 28-0 in their inaugural matchup. The ‘Canes won eight in a row in the 80’s and 90’s, and from 1998 through 2013.

The recent part of the rivalry has Pitt winning two games over the ‘Canes in the past seven times these two have faced off against each other. Pitt’s wins over The U have been split between home and away.

2020 Record/Ranking: 6-5/Unranked.

2020 Data: 29 PPG scored (58th in FBS), 24.5 PPG allowed (37th in FBS).

Bowl Game: Declined bowl invites.


Key Losses: Patrick Jones II, DL; Rashad Weaver, DL; Jason Pinnock, DB; Damar Hamlin, DB; Jimmy Morrissey, OL.

The Pitt Panthers have six players on the Athlon Magazine preseason All-ACC team. Pitt lost five dominant defenders to the NFL Draft from the 2020 squad that finished only 6-5. However, starting quarterback Kenny Pickett returns for his fifth season in Pittsburgh and he provides athleticism and leadership to the Panthers offense. The Panthers return 13 of 22 starters on offense and defense, a low number compared to other ACC teams.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A Panther can’t be found on Athlon’s list until the 2nd team defense where linebacker SirVocea Dennis appears. Dennis logged 55 tackles in ‘20, including 14 tackles for loss and four sacks. He’s joined on the 2nd team by punter Kirk Christodoulou. Christodoulou averaged 44.7 yards per punt last season.

On the third team, the Panthers finally land an offensive player in wide receiver Jordan Addison. Addison caught 60 balls for 666 yards and four TD’s a year ago. He’s joined by defensive lineman Calijah Kancey on the 3rd team. Last season Kancey picked up seven TFL’s and 1.5 sacks.

Pitt has two fourth team defenders in DL Deslin Alexandre and DB Damarri Mathis. Alexandre made 6.5 TFL’s and three sacks in ‘20, while Mathis missed the 2020 season but returns looking to improve upon his 11 PBU’s and two interceptions in 2019.

Pitt Scheme on O

I’m not sure what the Pitt scheme is on offense but whatever it is isn’t good. If the Panthers could’ve found a young, innovative offensive coordinator in 2015 they would’ve challenged for the Coastal more than once in a half dozen seasons. Instead they went with Matt Canada (which wasn’t bad, but his reputation panned out) and Mark Whipple. Bill Connelly’s SP+ has the Panthers ranked 43rd overall heading into the season with their offense a mere 65th and defense 36th.

Narduzzi isn’t a pushover. Coach Whipple will be tested by young upstart Brennan Marion coming to Pitt from Hawaii where he was a wide receiver coach. Marion is technically only the WR coach at Pitt, too, but his spread, high scoring background won’t be overlooked. Something has to change for the Panthers offense.

How do you lose to the Pitt offense? You shouldn’t lose to the Pitt offense. The only way to lose to Pitt is to score even less points than they do, which Miami tempted fate with in 2020. I think Kenny Pickett can nickel and dime the Miami defense with third down conversion runs in ‘21 more than Joey Yellen could in ‘20. But unless Marion is a miracle worker, the Panthers offense will likely be sub-top50 SP+ again in ‘21.

Above- you can see the dart Pickett let rip against NCSU. He’s improving year to year.

How do you beat the Pitt offense? The best method is to do what Miami did in ‘20 and shut their run game completely down. Without a run game Whipple will start throwing deep with long, drawn out Dan Enosian drops (remember Jacory Harris?) and antiquated protection schemes while Manny Diaz dials up blitzes. In ‘20, Miami held Pitt to 0.8 yards per carry, 5.9 yards per pass attempt.

Pitt Scheme on D

Pat Narduzzi’s 4-2-5 defense is where the Panthers shine. Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator for the Spartans best seasons and has been a defense-first head coach with the Panthers. Pitt will, however, have to replace 26.5 TFL’s from Weaver and Jones, and 12 PBU’s and five INT’s from Pinnock and Hamlin.

How do you lose to the Pitt defense? How do you lose to the Pitt defense? Have Malik Rosier at QB (sorry, Cam). I jest, but really it’s all about the Panthers ability to get a pass rush with four down linemen. An ACC assistant coach I’ve spoken with thinks Pitt has a recruiting and development model for defensive ends and will reload at the position as long as Narduzzi is there. So as usual, if you fail to protect the QB or establish any run game- Pitt fill feast on your QB.

Very standard Pitt 4-2-5 look vs 10p trips open.

How do you beat the Pitt defense? Protect your QB and establish a run game. Narduzzi has no qualms about putting his cornerbacks on an island. The issue for you is they’re extremely well coached, the issue for him is because it’s Pitt they’re not always as athletic as the wide receivers across from them. Miami was able to hang 31 on Pitt last season even with two interceptions and averaging under three yards per carry.

What concept can Miami use against Pitt? The Wolfpack hit the Panthers hard with go routes and back shoulder throws. Pushing the Pitt cornerbacks into a “full” hip turn towards the end zone (per Capology terminology- a damn mouthful). What I love about NCSU’s receiving corps is that they turn their shoulders and their eyes back to the ball instead of attempting quarter-turns or basket catches which lead to more miss than hit.

I’m not sure why more teams haven’t adopted this style, but turning the shoulders, and thus, the eyes back to the football increases the receiver’s catchification rating (I dunno). Made up words aside, I’ve used this as a coach with my own players, and have seen it coached up at Clemson and SMU with great results.

Miami, on the other hand, still utilizes a ‘basket catch’ and quarter-turn style and we’ve seen the issues with drops from Dee Wiggins, Mark Pope, Will Mallory, and others. I’ve covered all of this before on SOTU, so this isn’t new info.

Above- I think he caught this ball but that throw hung up there forever. If Wiggins (this was Wiggins, right?) turns his shoulders back to the ball and high pointed it he’s less likely to have the defender knock the ball out, and could draw a pass interference much easier than with the basket catch style.

Above- Watch Hunter Renfrow and see where his shoulders and eyes are when he catches the football. It works, and what Miami does obviously does not.

Canyonero keys to victory

1- Score some damn points. Obviously it only takes about four touchdowns to beat the Panthers. If Rhett Lashlee can’t game plan D’Eriq King, Mark Harley, Will Mallory and that crew of backs to score four times he’s overrated. Is Narduzzi a great DC? Yes. But holding Miami’s offense to 4 TD’s makes you pretty great. Score four and you’ll win.

2- Put pressure on Pickett. Miami needs to establish a pass rush and force him to make something happen. Pickett isn’t a good QB and can be tricked into turnovers, and forcing throws. Miami shouldn’t need to blitz that much against Pitt, use the front four to get pressure and let seven hawk the ball.

3- Don’t come out flat! This is a Halloween weekend game in Pittsburgh coming off of a tough home game against NC State. It’ll be cold and we know how Miami players react to that. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself from 2017. Miami can’t be weak willed and unfocused. That sort of FIU flatness is on the head coach, time to prep and develop your program to not mail games in ie. UNC 2020.

Way too early prediction: Miami by 14.