PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s season opener against UMass on Saturday had something for everyone.
If you’re the kind of fan that wants to harp on an nit-pick every single thing that went wrong, there was more than enough of that for you to grumble about. If you’re the kind of fan that wanted to see a dominant result on the scoreboard, you got that too.
Just for good measure, if you bet on the Panthers to cover the 38-point spread, well you’re collecting your winnings.
So for our five takeaways, I’ll try to be the balance between what to feel good about and what to start worrying about come next Saturday in Tennessee.
But let’s make the first takeaway a caveat. Pitt treated this game like a preseason game. In fact, Pat Narduzzi called it a scrimmage in his postgame press conference, which might’ve come off a bit condescending to UMass fans, if there are any of those.
“This is a good scrimmage,” he said. “It’s scrimmage number three. We only have two during camp, and that was scrimmage number three, and you can find out when the live bullets are flying who’s going to make a play and who’s not.”
The Pitt first-team defense played together for just one series. Third-team defensive players saw the field in the first quarter. Starting defensive end Deslin Alexandre was held out altogether and veteran tackle Keyshon Camp might’ve played two series.
On offense, the Panthers targeted 13 receivers, nine players had at least one carry and three men threw passes. The only unit that played with any consistency was the first-team offensive line, which stayed together for most of the first half.
So every takeaway — especially the negative ones — needs to be taken with that grain of salt. Pitt wasn’t taking this game or this opponent particularly seriously and this was mostly an exercise on seeing how many players they could get into a game.
PITT PUT THE BALL ON THE GROUND TOO OFTEN
One of the things that doesn’t matter who is in the game, or in what combination, is that players need to hang onto the football, and despite near-perfect conditions at Heinz Field, the Panthers put the ball on the ground five times against UMass.
Fortunately, three of them were recovered by blue jerseys, but A.J. Davis’ first-half fumble and the botched exchange between Owen Drexel and Nick Patti in the third quarter both took away what would have been Pitt scoring drives.
If the history is any guide, Pitt’s offense is not likely to be an elite one this year. They just do not have the kind of offense that can overcome multiple mistakes like that in scoring position, and it’s the one thing that needs immediately cleaned up.
Davis has not been especially fumble-prone in his career, but with a very deep running back group, it’s possible that error cost him playing time next week in Knoxville.
“We’ll look at the tape,” Narduzzi said. “Disappointed in that first fumble out of A.J.”
AGENT ZERO, THIRD DOWN HERO
For all of Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt, the go-to third-down defense — called the Delta package by the team — has been a 3-3-5 arrangement, with one defensive tackle coming off the field and an extra defensive back, usually a safety, coming on the field.
This season, that’s changed. The extra defensive back isn’t a defensive back at all. Or at least, not any more.
John Petrishen was a strong safety when he first came to Pitt from Penn State in 2019. Last season, he moved to the Star outside linebacker spot, where he served as Cam Bright’s backup. That’s a role Petrishen seems well-suited for, as he’s put a little muscle on his 6-foot-1 frame since arriving in Pittsburgh.
But Bright doesn’t exactly come off the field a lot, and do-it-all linebacker SirVocea Dennis can also play that spot, so there weren’t a ton of opportunities for Petrishen last season.
This year, he’s inherited that Delta role, turning the 3-3-5 into more of a 3-4, depending on how you characterize the safety-turned-linebacker. It’s also freed Petrishen to do something he enjoys: rush the passer.
He had two sacks in the opener against UMass, and seemed like he knew exactly how to fit through the tight gaps created by the defensive line and get to the quarterback.
“They talked about me playing linebacker when I was in high school, but I was always hesitant and resistant to do that,” Petrishen said. “I really finally grew into my body. I gained a lot of weight. My skillset and my size now really fits with the position I’m playing well.
“I’m able to transfer those ball skills and athleticism from the safety position, I gained a little weight, and now I have a good combo of the two, being able to play in the box and outside the box in coverage. I love it, I’m having fun and I think it’s a great position for me. … My two favorite things are to blitz and to cover. It’s perfect.”
Petrishen, who became the first Pitt player to wear No. 0 last year, said he was given the nickname “Agent Zero” when he first changed his number, and thinks it’s going to stick now that he’s getting more playing time.
“We can go with that,” Petrishen said. “I like that.”
TROUBLE WITH THE RUN?
Pitt’s running game did not get off to a particularly auspicious start, with backs Davis and Rodney Hammond rushing just six times in the first half, one of which was Hammond getting stuffed on a 4th and 1.
They ran for 38 yards on those six carries, for a very respectable average, and did even more in the second half. Pitt ended up rushing 41 times for 222 yards, a 5.4 yards per carry average.
Now, UMass’ run defense is not exactly the 1985 Chicago Bears, and Pitt’s inability to get one yard when the needed one — a bugaboo from last season — was not encouraging.
Narduzzi attributed that to having freshman running back Rodney Hammond in the game when he should have gone with a bigger, more experienced player.
I would expect to see a lot more of Israel Abanikanda and Vincent Davis and a lot less of everyone else at the running back position next week, and that should help matters.
The bottom line is that Pitt isn’t going to run the ball very often. Mark Whipple never has. They’re not going to attempt to establish the run or have 100-yard rushers or any of that. Running is the change of pace, not the primary way the offense wants to move down the field, and quarterback runs and wide receiver runs are going to take up a good portion of the running game, just like they did on Saturday.
What Pitt needs to do is to be able to run the ball for three yards when it needs three yards. We didn’t see that on Saturday. There are some reasons to think that might change with less running back rotation, but there are also reasons to think it won’t, namely the inability to do the same thing for most of last season. It’s too early to panic, but it was not the strong showing one would have hoped for.
Pitt came into the game with some or designations on the depth chart at running back, middle linebacker, free safety and kicker.
We’ve covered the running backs extensively, but what of the other battles?
• Dennis started at linebacker, but both he and Wendell Davis played extensively, and I’d expect a rotation there throughout the season.
Pitt’s linebackers go at least three deep at each position, and really there’s about 10 guys that I think they’d be comfortable playing.
At safety, Erick Hallett II got the start over Rashad Battle and it was easy to see why, as the younger Battle really struggled in coverage, allowing multiple open down the field looks for UMass’ offense, that thankfully was unable to take much advantage of.
Free safety is the most difficult position to play in Pitt’s defense, and there is a ton of pressure on the player that fills that role both mentally and athletically.
It’s essentially unfair to be forced to cover an elite slot receiver with an off-ball technique, while also having responsibilities in the run game. That player is going to get beaten, sometimes frequently. It’s the easiest weakness to exploit in Pitt’s defense.
It did not seem that the younger player was up to that difficult task on Saturday, and I would expect to see Hallett dominate the reps here going forward, even knowing that he is a less explosive athlete.
• As Narduzzi promised, both kickers played, with Ben Sauls handling the kickoffs, Sam Scarton doing the first-half kicking chores and Sauls the second half.
Scarton missed on extra point, but hit a 35-yard field goal. It’s a bit distressing that Scarton was identified as the early option for extra points, meaning he’s been the more accurate short-range kicker, and still missed.
Regardless of who is kicking, this is likely to be a source of angst for Pitt multiple times this season.