Previewing the Panthers is a series looking ahead to Pitt’s 2020 training camp and season. Each day, PSN will focus on a different coach or position group and look at all of the changes, battles and predictions that can be made in advance of the 2020 season.
In 2019, Pitt’s 8-5 record was mostly a product of its defense.
The Panthers’ defensive unit allowed an average of 22.5 points per game, which was 36th amongst the 130 FBS teams.
On offense? Mark Whipple’s squad was way below average. Pitt’s 21.2 points per game was 114th of 130.
Considering Pitt’s negative point differential, the Panthers were probably fairly fortunate to finish with as good of a record as they did last season.
While Pitt does return almost all of its defense from a year ago, it would be hard to have expectations of improvement for a unit already so dominant. The offense, on the other hand, is full of upside.
After all, Whipple was able to have more productive offenses that what Pitt put on the board in each of his five seasons at UMass. From 2013-18, Whipple’s Minutemen finished no worse than 110th in the country in scoring offense and in 2017 and 2018, they were 47th and 36th respectively.
That was, obviously, one of the big draws for Pitt when Pat Narduzzi when he hired Whipple in advance of the 2019 season. Another was his use of a pro-style offense and experience with professional quarterbacks.
After running one of the most run-happy non-option teams in 2018 under Shawn Watson, Pitt returned to a more balanced offense under Whipple.
Of the FBS teams in 2018 with the fewest passing attempts in the country, five (Army, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech, Navy and Air Force) run the option. Pitt was eighth in pass attempts per game, behind those five, Maryland and Coastal Carolina.
In 2019, Pitt went from having the eighth-fewest passing attempts to the eighth most, trailing only Air Raid schools like Washington State and Texas Tech, Purdue, Hawaii, San Jose State, Troy and USC.
No other team made anything even approximating such a drastic shift. Georgia Tech, which abandoned the triple option for a more typical college spread offense, went from 9.7 pass attempts per game to 22.4 (12.7 more per game). Pitt going from Watson to Whipple went from 22.6 attempts per game to 39.6, an increase of 16.9. Pitt actually made the more drastic change when it comes to passing attempts than Georgia Tech.
It wasn’t necessarily the smoothest transition. Kenny Pickett finished eighth in the ACC in adjusted yards per pass attempt (6.3) and eighth in passing efficiency rating (122.4).
That happened despite slot receive Maurice Ffrench leading the conference in receptions and breaking Larry Fitzgerald’s program record.
How does the school have an all-time receiving leader and still have the eighth-best passing offense? A lack of splash plays and an inability to convert on third downs.
Ffrench averaged 8.9 yards per reception on those 96 catches, which meant his receiving yards failed to even crack the top 10 in the conference. Pitt converted on a middle-of-the-road 39.9% of its third downs on the season, but the lack of big plays meant that the Panthers frequently needed to string together several of those conversions in order to put together a scoring drive.
So how can Pitt be better on offense in 2019 in Whipple’s second season? Pickett can certainly improve his efficiency. Though he went from 301 attempts in 2018 to 469 in 2019, Pickett’s rate stats were essentially static: an identical 6.3 adjusted yards per attempt and a passer rating that raised just 2.1 points.
The addition of Lucas Krull at tight end should also go a long way to allowing Whipple to replicate the success he had at UMass. In 2018, Minutemen tight end Adam Breneman caught 64 passes for 764 yards. Pitt’s tight ends combined for 38 catches for 331 yards last season.
There’s also a massive advantage when it comes to having consistency of coaching in an offseason with no spring football and likely a disjointed training camp experience as coaches try to keep players separated as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should someone on the team contract the disease.
Not only to does Pitt return Whipple for a second season, Chris Beatty, Dave Borbely, Andre Powell and Tim Salem all return as well, giving Pitt the exact same offensive staff. In an uncertain season, that should be a significant advantage.