It goes without saying that Saturday night’s 30-14 loss to Virginia was not the way Pitt wanted to start the 2019 season.
The areas of the team that most people had concerns about, ended up being the aspects that prevented Pitt from winning a very winnable game.
Before I get into my five takeaways from the opener, I’ll say that if Virginia is the best team in the ACC Coastal Division then that’s a very average to below average division.
That being said, the performance of Pitt’s offense was very disappointing from all aspects and although it’s just one game, it raises concerns for the rest of the season.
PICKETT NEEDS TO BE BETTER, BUT …
Considering all the off-season talk and the addition of Mark Whipple, all eyes were on Kenny Pickett and the Pitt passing game.
Will Mark Whipple be able to turn this offense into something that the opposing defenses had to worry about? I think the jury is still out on that following a head-scratching evening.
The opinion by most fans seems to be that Pickett is just not the answer and that he’s not someone that Pitt can win with. I’m not going to defend his performance and say that it was above average, because it wasn’t. However, as is often the case, many factors contributed to the performance of the quarterback.
Pickett missed some makeable throws, in particular a couple deep over the middle connections to Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench and was shaky with some shorter touch passes to A.J. Davis and V’Lique Carter. If this passing game is ever going to be a threat, he needs to hit a few of those deep passes because those are the plays that instantly change field position and momentum.
Speaking of momentum, the play that I feel changed the entire outcome was on a potential big play in the third quarter.
Following a field goal that gave Virginia a 16-14 lead, Pickett threw a perfect deep ball to Mack that would’ve been a 30-plus-yard gain and moved Pitt inside the Cavaliers 40-yard line. However, Mack just completely dropped a wide open pass. Two plays later, Pickett was intercepted by Matt Gahm and Virginia quickly turned that into a touchdown. Instead of Pitt potentially taking the lead, Virginia went up 23-14.
That drop was also harmful because it stopped some momentum the offense was starting to develop. The offense started moving the ball in the second quarter and took the lead on their last drive going into halftime. This missed opportunity occurred on the first drive of the second half. If Mack catches that pass and Pitt takes the lead, how would that have changed the game?
Pickett was also victim of another 20-plus-yard big play drop in the second quarter on a 3rd-and-10 throw to tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart.
So, while Pickett wasn’t perfect, he didn’t get much help.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE WAS BELOW THE LINE
In my opinion, the area that should be most concerning after last night was the play of the offensive line and in particular, their pass protection. If that’s any indication of what we’re going to see all year, the offense and Pickett is in big trouble.
The final statistics had Pickett being sacked four times, but that wasn’t an accurate description of what occurred on the field.
The reality is that Pickett was under pressure for most of the evening and if not for his athleticism, that sack total would’ve been double what was on the stat sheet.
Whipple wants to have this offense throw the ball more and last night, they did so 41 times. However, if the pass protection from the line and running backs doesn’t get better, Pickett won’t last the entire season healthy.
NEED MORE FFRENCH
It’s only one game, so it’s too early to complain about touches but it’s fairly obvious to anyone that’s watched the last two years that Maurice Ffrench needs to touch the ball as much as possible.
Last night, French had six catches for 54 yards, but that’s not enough. He’s someone that can score from anywhere on the field and that needs to be taken advantage of. V’Lique Carter has a similar skill set, but is not yet where Ffrench is.
While it’s a head scratcher as to what’s going on with supposed young playmakers Shocky Jacques-Louis, Dontavious Butler-Jenkins, Michael Smith, etc., Ffrench is a proven commodity and Pitt needs to force him the ball via the pass or run.
THE GOOD NEWS
While the final score ended up being 30-14, that was misleading as to how well the defense played.
Because of two turnovers and one turnover on downs, the Virginia offense turned three short fields into touchdowns. Yes, the defense could’ve held the Cavaliers to field goals, but the reality is that the offense hung them out to dry.
Overall, Pitt’s defense played well enough to win, which is a good sign for the season.
Specifically, the defensive line played extremely well as they were able to get a ton of pressure on quarterback Bryce Perkins. Before leaving with an injury, Keyshon Camp played well so we’ll see if the injury is anything long-term.
Aside from a couple pass interference calls and a missed assignment by Damarri Mathis, the secondary played physical and extremely well, especially Paris Ford.
The other two players that really stood out to me were Deslin Alexandre and Kylan Johnson. The graduate transfer linebacker played extremely fast and looked to be all over the field.
FANS DIDN’T SHOW UP
I’m not going to harp on this, but the crowd last night was beyond disappointing. Fans can complain about Pat Narduzzi and other aspects of the program but they’re still falling short in a very important aspect and that’s supporting the team.
All things were there for Pitt to have a good opening night crowd: 1) primetime game 2) good opponent 3) Pitt uniform changes 4) defending Coastal champions 5) Rib Fest taking place outside Heinz Field. Despite all of that, Pitt fans didn’t show up to support their team.
I’d love to know what Heather Lyke and the Pitt administration were thinking as they looked at all the empty seats. Maybe tarping the upper deck of Heinz Field isn’t such a bad thing.