PITTSBURGH — Welcome to the PSN Film Study. In this space, we’ll break down some of the big plays and tactical mismatches from each Pitt football game.
If you’re new here, I tend to build onto concepts I’ve already explained in the past at times, so if you feel like you’re missing something, the archive is a good place to check.
As I sat down to re-watch Saturday’s game for the purposes of my weekly Pitt football film study, the thing that was in my head was Pitt’s defense. In particular, I wanted to look at Pitt’s passing defense and try to figure out what made them so much better against Wake Forest on Saturday than they had been for most of the rest of the season.
On the surface, the Demon Deacons appeared to be a poor matchup for Pitt’s defense, with a spread, up-tempo attack that closely resembled the offenses of Duke, North Carolina, Central Florida and Penn State that had their way with the Panthers throughout the season.
But for whatever reason, Wake Forest didn’t end up playing with that much tempo. Perhaps it was a not to the inexperience of starting quarterback Jamie Newman, but the Demon Deacons’ tempo went from lightning quick on film to molasses in real life.
So the biggest reason Pitt allowed a season low in total yards — yes even Albany had more yards against Pitt than Wake Forest did — was that the Demon Deacons just didn’t run that many plays. They snapped the ball just 58 times, compared to some of the higher-tempo offenses Pit has faced like UCF (79 plays) and Syracuse (78 plays).
Then there’s the fact that Wake Forest averaged 4.9 years per play. That figure represents Pitt’s best of the season, but that statement is a bit misleading. Syracuse and Notre Dame also averaged 4.9 yards per play against Pitt. Virginia and Virginia Tech each averaged exactly 5.0. It’s worth nothing that Pitt is 6-1 when holding opponents below 6.0 yards per play and 1-3 when they fail to.
But that doesn’t explain why Pitt had as much success against Wake Forest as the Panthers did against Virginia and Virginia Tech, two teams that don’t necessarily have the same matchup problems that the Deacons do.
I hate to say, there was no magic bullet. Pitt did effectively mix in its nickel package occasionally, got just enough of a pass rush, and made two timely interceptions. But there’s no grand schematic change. Damar Hamlin had an impressive game, blanketing receivers in coverage, but he was still in his customary position eight to 10 yards off the ball.
Pat Narduzzi’s defensive scheme is predicated on the idea that stopping the run is the most important objective and that if some pass coverage has to be sacrificed to meet that objective, well that’s OK because most college quarterbacks aren’t good enough to make you pay all that often.
It’s a plan that certainly hasn’t always worked in Pitt’s favor, but Saturday, it was pretty clear that Newman just wasn’t good enough to make Pitt pay. There were a ton of misfired balls, poor reads and poor decisions that led to Pitt’s pass defense putting up one of its best statistical days.
Here’s a third down from the first quarter. Pitt is in Nickel, but they’ve disguised the coverage a bit. Damar Hamlin is shaded toward the boundary side, but that’s the weak side of the formation. He’s going to be responsible for the middle of the field, and the most likely player to enter that zone will be the tight end across the field. Hamlin’s first steps have to be that way, which essentially leaves Phillipie Motley without deep help.
Because Motley has to be conservative, this is a perfect call by Wake Forest. The receiver gets an outside release, runs off Motley and then stops and turns at the first-down marker. The problem is that the ball is a second late and high, which gives Motley enough time to come back and make the stop a yard short of the line of gain.
It’s somewhat mind-boggling that Wake Forest kicked here (and again later in the game) on 4th and short from deep into Pitt’s territory, but this throw being just a hair off probably ended up being the difference between three points and seven for the Deacons.
Here in the second quarter, Pitt is in Delta and is playing some type of Cover 2 (I touched on that last week.) Jason Pinnock passes the receiver to Jazzee Stocker, but Stocker is pre-occupied, because Cam Bright has a tough time with a vertical route from the tight end. Stocker is late getting over and Scotty Washington is wide open. With a well-paced ball, this is a touchdown. Newman just air-mails it.
In the second half, it was even worse for Wake Forest. Here, the Deacons are in a trips look, with Pitt in base. Seun Idowu and Hamlin are stacked in coverage, with Hamlin taking the deeper man. He starts 10 yards off the ball and his first move is a backpedal. With only two other players on that side of the field and two blockers, this swing pass will be a huge gain if Newman can just get Greg Dortsch the ball. Instead, he sails it over his head for a harmless incompletion. Newman’s next pass was also incomplete and Wake Forest had to punt.
Here’s another trips formation, later in the third. It’s a third down and Wake Forest only needs five yards. They call a great combination to get their slot receiver open and get the sticks, and Newman overshoots him.
There was a lot to like about the way Pitt’s defense shut down the run, the play of Hamlin and more on Pitt’s defense. But it’s pretty clear on second viewing that Wake Forest’s passing game was just simply not up to the task on Saturday.
A NEW LOOK
We haven’t seen a lot of Kenny Pickett standing the pocket, making his reads and going through his profession. That’s because the average pocket has lasted about three seconds before Pickett has had to make a break for it.
Saturday, though, Pickett got lots and lots of time, and I saw him do something I’ve yet to see him do at Pitt: Look off the safety. Pickett was able to do it twice and both plays ended up going for Pitt touchdowns.
Watch as the looks to his left immediately at the snap and safety No. 12 shuffles that way, leaving the frame. He never comes back and Taysir Mack is off to the races.
This one might be more impressive. Pickett look left, freezing the safety, then drops it right over him for a touchdown to Maurice Ffrench.
It’s amazing what time to throw can do for a quarterback’s abilities.
One of the bigger defensive plays for the Panthers ended up being this goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter. Pitt had been getting gashed on the ground this whole drive, and Wake Forest didn’t substitute, so the Panthers had no chance of getting fresh personnel or extra linemen into the game for the goal-line stand on 3rd and 2.
Instead of a fifth defensive lineman, Pitt has to rely on Elias Reynolds, Saleem Brightwell and Dennis Briggs at the point of attack. Each linebacker took on a lineman, leaving Briggs to shoot through the gap and make the stop in the hole.
Again, it’s odd that Wake Forest chose to kick here, but this is another play where Pitt’s defense saved some points.