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Vukovcan: Pitt’s Passing Game Getting a Failing Grade Right Now



Football is the ultimate team game.

When a player or unit shines it’s because multiple players are doing their jobs well, which helps contribute to individual success.

The same thing applies when talking about someone–or something–who’s struggling.

That’s where we are with the Pitt passing game.

It’s had issues for most of the year and yesterday it was a big reason for Pitt being unable to pull off the upset at #5 Notre Dame.

If Notre Dame is a top five team in the country, then Pitt played like a top 20 team because they performed as well, or better than Notre Dame in nearly every aspect.

Except passing the football.

When trailing in the second half and needing to make plays, Notre Dame was able to complete key passes. On the other side, Pitt had multiple chances to make it a two score game but failed to do so because their offense is currently one-dimensional and predictable.

I’m not going to claim to be a football expert or smarter than any of the Pitt coaches. Because I’m not.

However, I do know that at some point you have to attempt to throw the ball vertically down the field. You can’t just throw five-yard outs and swing passes the entire game and expect to have success.

They haven’t done that and it’s been a big reason for the struggles this season.

The question now is why?

As I mentioned at the beginning, when something is struggling, chances are it’s not just because of one thing and that’s the case with Pitt’s lack of passing game.

To quote a line from the late great Chuck Noll, “their problems are many and they are great.”

Problem A: Shawn Watson

Shawn Watson isn’t a good play-caller, period. He’s very conservative and doesn’t set up or sequence plays particularly well.

I’d give Watson an F for his play-calling in the 4th Quarter.

With eight minutes left and Pitt facing 3rd and 2 from the Notre Dame 47 yard line, Watson calls a sideways swing pass to Darrin Hall, who gets tackled for a 3 yard loss. In their previous game against Syracuse, Pitt relied on their running game and it worked. Hall and Quadree Ollison are the Panthers two best offensive players and should’ve gotten the ball twice with the chance to pick up two yards to extend the drive.

Following Notre Dame’s touchdown, Watson again failed to rely on and trust the strength of the offense. With 4:33 left, Ollison ran for 6 yards on first down. Instead of pounding the ball or lining Hall or Ollison up in the Wild-Cat to pick up the first down, Watson tried to pass the ball on three consecutive plays.

It made zero sense and cost them the game.

It also appears that Watson has put hand-cuffs on Kenny Pickett’s chances to use his legs. If Watson is going to make Pickett strictly a drop-back quarterback, throwing the ball short and not utilizing his mobility, he’ll never have the chance to be great or above average.

Problem B: Kenny Pickett

Some of the struggles have to go to the quarterback himself. I’m not going to heavily criticize a college athlete but if you’re objectively analyzing things with Pitt, you have to be honest and say Pickett hasn’t been good enough. Heck, the competitor that he is, Pickett will tell you the same thing.

Someone who was at the game yesterday told me that when given the opportunity to throw downfield, Pickett either refused to do so (and there were open receivers), or couldn’t connect on the throw. I’m told that the biggest thing is he isn’t trusting what he sees and he’s also not anticipating things and isn’t giving his guys a chance to make a play. For example, on the last drive of the game when he got sacked on 1st down, if Pickett just trusts the play and himself and goes to Maurice Ffrench, he was open and could’ve picked up 25+ yards. Instead, he holds it and gets sacked.

Prior to the season Pickett received an enormous amount of hype from his coaches, media and fans but right now he’s a young player without a bunch of college experience that’s struggling and isn’t playing with any confidence.

Problem C: Pass Protection

Watson is getting criticized for not letting Pickett drop back and throw downfield and instead throwing everything quick and short. Maybe Watson is doing this because they don’t believe the offensive line will give Pickett enough time in the pocket. While they’ve done a nice job this season with run blocking, Pickett has faced a ton of pressure and hits from the opposing defense. Pass protection hasn’t been a big strength of the offensive line.

Problem D: Not Enough Speed

This offense just doesn’t have enough speed on the field. None of the main targets in their offense are playmakers or home-run hitters. The only three players that fit that description are Shocky Jaques-Louis, A.J. Davis or Mychale Salahuddin and none of these players touch the ball enough yet to be a real threat. Productive offenses need players that can turn a 5-10 yard catch or a handoff into 40-50 yards. The current offensive starters don’t have that threat. As Pitt is finding out, it’s hard to consistently make 10+ play drives without eventually making a mistake via turnover or penalty which ends up killing the drive.

The best thing that came from yesterday’s game was the performance of the defense against a very explosive Notre Dame offense. If they can play like that down the stretch, Pitt will have a chance to win to every game and compete for the Coastal Division.

Pitt has their bye this week, which gives them extra time to work on things. And for EVERYONE on the offensive side of the ball to get better.

This isn’t just a Kenny Pickett or a Shawn Watson issue, it’s an offensive unit issue.

They have two weeks to figure things out.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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