PITTSBURGH — The big challenge for Pitt against No. 9 Oklahoma State this Saturday is a pretty easy one to figure out: How to stop Cowboys wide receiver James Washington.
Washington is the favorite for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver and was a consensus preseason All-American selection. His 29 career receiving touchdowns are the most among all active players. He leads all active Power Five receivers with 3,166 career years.
This season, he’s averaging over 30.4 yards per catch and has scored a touchdown 37.5 percent of the time he’s touched the ball.
Clearly, identifying the issues is not the problem. Stopping him is. The Panthers know that all too well after Washington torched them for an absurd 296 and two touchdowns on nine catches a year ago in Stillwater.
This season, the Panthers are ready for “redemption,” as head coach Pat Narduzzi put it on Monday, and they feel they’re in a better spot to do so after having taking the worst of what they Cowboys have to offer last season.
“The first time seeing a team, you’re still learning them,” senior cornerback Avonte Maddox said Tuesday. “You’ve never really seen them on the field. … Now, you’ve seen them for a second time. You know what they’ve got and you kind of know what to expect.”
One of the things that caught the Panthers off guard last season was the sheer height of the deep balls that Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph delivers. The loft he puts under the ball makes it more difficult for a defensive back to make a play on it and lets speedy receivers like Washington outpace coverage deep down the field.
“They throw some dinky stuff like we do, but then they throw those big long ones, and that guy runs by a lot of people,” Narduzzi said Monday. “He did it to us last year a couple times, and again, we were in coverage and they’re catching balls out here.You’re going to see the ball wherever you guys sit in the press box or 20th row, you’re going to see that ball go up and come down like a punt, and it gives the receivers an opportunity to run under that ball and make it a jump ball, back shoulder.
“So, that’s something that we know now. We didn’t really know going into it. Who looks at the elevation of the ball? It’s just kind of the way Mason throws it a little bit, but they do a good job of throwing the football, and we will work hard. I’ll have to get my arm out there, get it loosened up and throw some good balls.”
The Panthers did exactly that on Tuesday, with the defensive backs working on backpedaling drills, high pointing jump balls and staying with receivers far down the field.
That work has extended beyond the confines of Pitt’s allotted practice time, as well, according to redshirt sophomore Dane Jackson, who is expected to start opposite Maddox on Saturday.
“We’ve just been working a little after practice, trying to work on high pointing the ball and staying with our technique and getting a feel for it,” Jackson said. “We don’t (see it a lot). When the ball’s in the air, it’s a competition. You have to fight for it.”
Providing the competition this week is Pitt’s scout team, which has freshman Michael Smith masquerading as Washington and Darian Street as slot man Jalen McCleskey. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Thomas Macvittie has donned the No. 2 of Rudolph and has been dropping the deep balls over shoulders of receivers.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Jackson himself was on the scout team. A two-way player at Quaker Valley, Jackson played quarterback in the option offense at high school and was Pitt’s scout team quarterback at times as a true freshman.
Last season against Oklahoma State, Jackson barely left the bench, even as Maddox, Ryan Lewis and company were being shredded by the Cowboys. This fall, Jackson started out behind Phillipie Motley at Pitt’s field corner spot. When Motley went down with an injury, Jackson had to fend off a challenge from true freshman Damarri Mathis that lasted through the season opener against Youngstown State.
But Jackson was outstanding in that game and as a result, got the majority of the playing time against Penn State in Week 2, when he again answered the bell.
“He got a lot more playing time because he’s been producing,” Narduzzi said of Jackson on Monday. “It’s a year of confidence, a year of technique, and (he’s) been there before. … Sometimes it’s learn under fire, and that’s what happens at the corner spot.”
For Maddox, now a senior and the unquestioned leader of the secondary, it’s been rewarding to watch Jackson come as far as he has.
“He’s grown a lot,” Maddox said. “I always knew Dane had it in him. He’s always had that dog in him. He came out, he works, he works and he works.”
Now, Maddox and Jackson will face together one of the toughest tests a collegiate corner can face this season. Here’s more from Jackson and Maddox on their upcoming Saturday.