It’s Pitt’s bye week and we’re calling it the midpoint of the season as the Panthers sit at 3-4 while they prepare for Duke next Saturday.
It’s the midpoint in one sense, as the Panthers’ 19-14 loss to Notre Dame last Saturday signified the end of non-conference play. Pitt finished 1-3 against non-league opponents, beating FCS Albany in the opener, but losing three games to three teams currently in the AP Top 25 in No. 4 Notre Dame, No. 10 UCF and No. 18 Penn State.
But whether it’s actually the midpoint of Pitt’s season is a big part of the drama that’s yet to unfold. If the Panthers play a bowl game, they’ll get 13 games in 2018-19, and then yes, this week will roughly be the midpoint of their campaign.
If they don’t, that means that Pitt’s Week 6 battle with the Irish will have marked the middle of this season.
That’s a distinction that doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether or not the Panthers get that all-important 13th game. In their final five regular-season games, they’ll need to finish 3-2 or better in order to secure a bowl berth.
While we’re assuming this is, or at least close, to the midpoint of the season for the Panthers, we’re handing out some grades, awards and taking a closer look at the seven games in the rear view mirror in order to project the five games ahead.
Wednesday, I handed out letter grades to each Pitt position group along with a few of the coaches.
Today, let’s start with some mid-season superlatives for the Panthers.
There can be nearly no question as to who Pitt’s best player has been so far this season. That would be running back Qadree Ollison. With 646 rushing yards and a half-dozen touchdowns, he’s accounted for more points and more yards from scrimmage than any other Pitt player.
While the play of co-starter Darrin Hall has been every bit as inspired, it’s been Ollison that’s been the workhorse, with 108 carries to Hall’s 57. Pitt’s ability to run the ball nearly singlehandedly let the Panthers beat Syracuse and was a big part of their near upset of the Irish.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Outside of Ollison, there’s few options in the Pitt offense that have impressed. Hall has certainly been very good, but the best other player is probably wide receiver Taysir Mack. The team’s most talented receiver has been sorely missed the last two weeks while he’s been recovering from a right foot/ankle injury. Perhaps the bye week can help Mack get back on the field, though head coach Pat Narduzzi was noncommittal on Wednesday.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
This has to be Rashad Weaver. The redshirt sophomore has stepped his game up and stood up — literally — at the same time this year. He leads Pitt in sacks, tackles for loss and leads the nation in fumble recoveries, showing a strong nose for the football.
Pitt has also used Weaver’s athleticism to stand him up and play a proto-linebacker spot, converting to an odd, 3-4 front at times to throw off opposing offenses.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
By rights, this should probably be Ollison, but in the interest of variety, I’ll go a different route.
Cornerback Jason Pinnock was used somewhat sparingly as a true freshman in 2017, and figured to be an understudy in a crowded cornerbacks room this year with veterans Dane Jackson and Phillipie Motley and a trio of second-year players in Pinnock; Damarri Mathis, who played more in 2017; and Paris Ford, who was a more-heralded recruit.
Pinnock, the biggest and most physical of Pitt’s corners, has bumped, elbowed and shouldered the competition out of the way, grasping at every opportunity he’s been given to become almost assured of a starting role in 2019 if not the rest of this season.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Pitt’s freshman class has been held pretty quiet, with just wide receiver Shockey Jacques-Louis taking off the redshirt, a decision that looks questionable as he has just 14 touches in seven games.
There also hasn’t been a ton of work given to Pitt’s redshirt freshmen that are seeing the field for the first time in 2018. The one exception to that has been defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman.
Pitt didn’t exactly need Twyman to contribute this season with four of their top five defensive tackles from a year ago returning, but like Pinnock in the secondary, he’s pushed his way to a role in a crowded field. A left arm injury to Rashad Wheeler against Notre Dame may provide an opportunity for more playing time for Twyman going forward.
COACH OF THE YEAR
This is a no-brainer. Special teams coordinator and running backs coach Andre Powell not only has coached two of Pitt’s most consistent performers in Ollison and Hall, his special teams units have a midseason All-America kicker returner in Maurice Ffrench and Rafael Araujo-Lopes has also taken a punt to the house. Yes, Pitt’s specialists have struggled in their individual roles, but Powell’s role as special teams coordinator is far more about the design and execution of the phases of special teams than kicking fundamentals.
The depth looks promising at running back, as well, where A.J. Davis and Mychael Salahuddin have looked strong and Todd Sibley has carved out a role on special teams. Let’s not forget that Powell also coaches monster fullback George Aston.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
ALBANY: Pitt finally came out and demonstratively beat an FCS opponent in its season opener this year, after needing overtime to take care of Youngstown State in 2017 and letting the Penguins hang around in 2015 and Villanova in 2016.
It was an impressive debut that didn’t dispel any of the preseason optimism that surrounded the Panthers. But as we look back, the Great Danes aren’t exactly great.
Since losing to the Panthers, Albany is 2-3 at the FCS level and is dead last in the CAA with an 0-3 conference record. So it seems like Pitt’s debut win came against a worse-than FCS opponent.
PENN STATE: The Nittany Lions are good, make no question about that, but successive losses for the Nits against Ohio State and Michigan State have certainly taken some luster off that squad.
That makes things even worse for the Panthers, who certainly played poorly in the matchup and did a lot of beating themselves, but also gave up yards and points easily to Penn State’s second-team offense, including 21 in the fourth quarter. The Spartans only allowed Penn State to score 17 total.
GEORGIA TECH It looked like Pitt finally figured out the Yellow Jackets’ flexbone triple-option offense after holding Georgia Tech to just 19 points.
But the Yellow Jackets haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard everywhere else, either. They did put up 38 against South Florida in a losing effort right before visiting Pitt, but since then, they’ve scored 21 against Clemson, 17 against Bowling Green, 66 against moribund Louisville and 14 against Duke. Statistically, that works out to the No. 26 scoring offense in the country, but that rating feels hollow with how Georgia Tech has fared against better competition. Oh, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Mark Bradley wrote this week that the school might have to fire head coach Paul Johnson.
NORTH CAROLINA The Panthers’ 38-35 loss to the Tar Heels looked awful the moment the final gun sounded, and not much that’s happened in the meantime has changed anyone’s mind about that. Right now, Pitt is the only team Carolina has beaten. In their two losses following that game, to Miami and Virginia Tech, they’ve scored 29 points total compared to the 38 they scored against Pitt.
SYRACUSE There’s not much looking back to be done here, because the Orange had last week off after losing at Heinz Field two Saturdays ago. But it’s worth nothing that Syracuse’s 4-0 start to the season that turned some heads appears to have been somewhat hollow. They beat FCS Wagner, Western Michigan, 1-5 UConn and 3-3 Florida State. Not exactly a murderer’s row, particularly with the Seminoles continuing to struggle.
NOTRE DAME Obviously, this latest loss just happened, so it’s tough to look back on it, but looking ahead, the Panthers might have had the best shot of anyone to knock off the unbeaten Irish. Of their remaining games, only Syracuse and USC have winning records.
SPINNING IT FORWARD
So what does the 3-4 first half tell us about what to expect for the second half?
Obviously, preseason expectations should be tempered. Pitt’s passing offense has struggled throughout, thought the defense appears to be on track after an awful start, and there have been too many random loose ends, from kicking and holding to penalties, that have held Pitt back.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Pitt’s schedule is going to lighten up considerably. Before the season, it looked like Pitt would play five ranked teams this year, but Miami and Virginia Tech have both dropped from the AP Top 25. Both of those games will be difficult, especially the visit to face the Hurricanes on the road, but neither look like another sure-fire loss for the Panthers, either.
The rest of the ACC Coastal is looking very much like the ACC Coastal usually does, with little separation from the top to the bottom and a feeling that just about anyone could win any game any week. That’s good news for the Panthers, who at 2-1 in ACC play, still control their own destiny. The other good news for the Panthers is that their loss to North Carolina probably won’t factor in to a head-to-head tiebreaker. So there’s no real reason the Panthers shouldn’t think all of their preseason goals are still ahead of them. Narduzzi emphasized that point this week.
“The great thing is there’s no more non-conference games,” he said. “Out of our system, out of our way. Each one of these games is really, really important. We control our own destiny right right now. If we do what we need to do, we can be right where we need to be. That’s the name of the game. All of our focus is being on 1-0 in another week and a half and trying to beat Duke here at home.”
So, how will the second half of the 2018 season go for the Panthers? Before the year started, I predicted a 7-5 season with one good win and one bad loss. That’s still on the table for Pitt, if you count North Carolina as the bad loss, assume that Pitt will knock off one of Virginia Tech and Miami and sweep the rest of their conference schedule.
But the way Pitt has played thus far has not given me confidence in that prediction. The two losses to Penn State and UCF were not close, the North Carolina loss outright embarrassing and the wins over Albany, Georgia Tech and Syracuse have not looked as good as they once did.
I do feel Pitt has played its best football of the season the last two weeks, and that certainly is a positive sign. But I’m not sure I see a team that’s both primed for an upset somewhere along the way and will be able to play consistent enough football to avoid another stumble against a team they’re more evenly matched with.
So, I’m downgrading my 2018 prediction from 7-5 to 6-6. I still think Duke, Virginia and Wake Forest ought to be winnable games for the Panthers and they have a shot against the Hokies. But I doubt they play clean enough football to come away with all four wins.
As to whether 6-6 in Year Four of the Pat Narduzzi Era is good enough, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.