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.
A lot of people were surprised that senior A.J. Davis got the start at running back, especially after Pat Narduzzi talked up the play of Israel Abanikanda throughout training camp.
The reason Davis started is simple: pass protection. He’s the best at it of Pitt’s backs, and Pitt is going to throw a lot more than it’s going to run. That means pass protection is one of the main jobs of Pitt’s running backs, and while Narduzzi said Abanikanda is much improved in that area, he’s still not up to the level of Davis.
In other games, the priorities may shift, but on Saturday, job No. 1 of the offense was protecting Kenny Pickett. The starting offensive line was the only place on the team that Pitt didn’t substitute in the first half. Davis was a big part of that process.
Here’s an absolutely vicious chip block in the first quarter that shows what Davis is capable of in that realm.
Now, this is the play that Davis fumbled on after he caught the pass, and I already wrote yesterday in my Five Takeaways that it will probably cost him playing time. But this type of blocking is what Pitt is looking for from the rest of its backs, and even if some are better ballcarriers, Davis is going to play as long he’s the best at it.
Remember the sheer terror of that minute and a half where it looked like Pickett might have been seriously hurt? That’s the only way to kill Pitt’s season before it gets started. Keeping that from happening must be job No. 1.
As for Pitt’s running game, lots of people asked me what was wrong with it against UMass. Considering they rushed for 223 yards, scored five rushing touchdowns, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry on the ground, I’d say just about nothing was wrong with it.
But there was a two-play sequence in the first quarter where Pitt was stuffed on back-to-back short yardage tries, resulting in a turnover on downs. Both of those were slow-developing inside runs from the shotgun with freshman Rodney Hammond Jr. I’d shelf that particular combination going forward, but on the whole, Pitt ran the ball just fine.
There were several of you that were concerned about the number of times that UMass was able to either hit a big pass play or just missed on one with a receiver running free in the Pitt defense.
On some levels, this is partly due to the scheme of Pitt’s defense. The job the team’s defensive backs, particularly the safeties, have to do is essentially impossible. The whole idea is that the pass rush will get there in time to take advantage more often than not, and when they don’t, most college quarterbacks just aren’t good enough to take advantage very often, even if there are plays to be made.
But despite the safeties having a tough job, we’ve seen it done well at Pitt by players like Paris Ford, Damar Hamlin and Jordan Whitehead. What some of you were seeing on Saturday was it not being done well.
Here, Rashad Battle bites on a double move and is beaten back across the middle, but the pass goes incomplete.
This time, Pitt has traveled its boundary corner to help deal with multiple receivers to the field side, so strong safety Judson Tallandier is left to deal with the outside receiver to the top of the screen. Tallandier attempts a jam at the top of the route stem 10 yards down field, which is a good way to get a defensive pass interference call, and then loses his footing and lets the man get right past him.
For this play, the Minutemen used an orbit motion to put some stress on the Pitt defense, and it worked. UMass starts in a two-by-two, four-receiver look. Pitt counters in its base defense, with the outside linebackers split wide to help with short coverage against the inside receivers, and the safeties positioned to help them over the top.
When the motion takes a third receiver to the field side of the formation, Pitt’s responsibilities must change. Instead of Cam Bright being free to re-route the slot receiver, he is now solely responsible for the motioning receiver, while Battle is now isolated in coverage against the slot. The motion man stops in the flat and Bright begins to charge. He’s even able to get a re-route of Battle’s man on his way to covering his. But Battle gets frozen in no man’s land, and when Bright lets the receiver go, there’s no safety back there to pick up coverage.
This time, UMass lines up with the trips to the left and Pitt travels its boundary corner to the field. The corners are in quarters coverage on the outside receivers, while Battle is responsible for the slot, with John Petrishen in position to get a re-route. Petrishen slows the receiver and then lets him go to the outside, where Battle should pick him up, but he’s way late getting to his man.
I’m not trying to pick on Battle, but UMass most certainly was. The young defensive back, playing the safety position in a real game for the first time, had a pretty rough day that also included a penalty on special teams that negated a nice punt return. The silver lining for Pitt is that Erick Hallett II won the starting job at free safety over Battle in camp, and his coverage was much cleaner. I’d be shocked if we see much of Battle for a little while, but he’s a very talented athlete that should come back stronger from a rocky debut eventually.
Calijah Kancey is going to be an All-ACC player. His level of disruption in the middle of Pitt’s defense was absolutely off the charts on Saturday. Here’s one good example.
This is play action, with the UMass line run-blocking down to its right. Kancey shoots the gap between the center and guard, blows by a chip attempt and makes the sack before the UMass quarterback even had a chance to look downfield.