When Tim Salem was the offensive coordinator at Purdue in 1994, he led his Boilermakers’ offense against a Wisconsin defense that featured Mel Tucker in the defensive secondary. Neither Salem nor Tucker could gain the upper hand that October afternoon, with a 27-27 game ending in a tie.
While Salem won’t be calling plays directly against Tucker this time, although with Tucker serving as Michigan State’s head coach, he basically is, the blast from the past only reminds him of how long he’s been around college football now.
“You mentioned the word ‘so long,’ I kind of pause for a moment because my brother reminded me that back when I was the play-caller at Purdue in the early 90s, coach Tucker was a player at Wisconsin,” Salem said on Pitt’s Zoom press conference Monday morning. “I’ve been around long enough that I was calling plays against him as a player, which I guess shows our ages.
After Mark Whipple left Pitt for the same position at Nebraska earlier this month, head coach Pat Narduzzi took his time deciding who would serve as the interim offensive coordinator for Pitt’s Peach Bowl appearance against No. 10 Michigan State on Dec. 30, he eventually decided upon Salem.
With Salem’s last time serving as a full-time offensive coordinator coming in 2008 with UCF, he’s excited to call the plays.
“I think number one, I’m excited to call plays,” Salem said. “I think that’s always very unique. Of course, maybe when it’s fourth down and everybody kind of pauses and you got the big play call coming out of your mouth, it’s always very exciting. But that’s part of the deal.”
Despite Kenny Pickett opting out of the Peach Bowl, along with Taysir Mack, Salem will run an offense that returns almost the entire regular season personnel that averaged 43 points per game. The biggest difference, of course, will be the integration of backup quarterback Nick Patti, but the Pitt offense isn’t expected to miss a beat. And Salem is focusing on keeping the offensive continuity flowing.
“I think number one, I’m just focused on the day-to-day activities,” Salem said. “We’ve got practice here shortly. I’m just focused on what we’re doing for practice, making sure we’re organized. It’s been welcome because we haven’t changed — I’ve been with Coach Narduzzi for seven years. The practices haven’t changed. I’m familiar, players are familiar. Coach Whipple did a marvelous job in the three years kind of organizing.”
With an older, veteran unit that likes to practice and play, Salem said he just wants to ‘keep the car on the track’ and move forward at 100 miles an hour. He pointed to the idea of managing what Pitt has done all season and still doing it well.
While Salem will continue to coach from the box, staying where he’s spent the past 15-plus years as a coach, Pitt will have Matt Schell, an offensive quality control coach, on the sidelines as the quarterbacks coach and on-field go-between for Salem and the offense. And Salem will be joined in the box by Pickett himself.
“If Kenny is up there, I hope he’s whispering in my ear because Kenny is a player,” Salem said. “Kenny sees and Kenny’s done it. And I’ll take any voice from him. I’ll listen. Because he’s been part of this process. And we’re going to go to town, as mentioned earlier. And like I said, we’re eager, I’m eager. I think our players have worked very hard and we’ll get the ball moving around.”
In Patti making just his second career start, Salem said with a veteran offensive line and a stable of three very capable running backs in Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond Jr., the run game will be important. But he reiterated that Patti can sling the football — especially with Jordan Addison on the football field.
“Nick can throw it too. Nick’s got a good — head on his shoulders. And I think we’ve got the Biletnikoff Award winner. The ball has got to go to him, it’s got to get to his hands. Nick knows that. Nick knows his jersey number. We’ll get him in a position that the ball will get thrown (to him) like we have all year long. That shouldn’t change.”
Salem said he is confident in Pitt’s ability to run the ball, with any of the three aforementioned running backs, but the offense will continue to operate through the air and on the ground.
With Pitt’s veteran offensive line leading the way against a strong Michigan State defensive front, Patti will be provided the time that Pickett saw to sit back in the pocket to progress through his reads. And while Patti doesn’t offer the scrambling ability that Pickett did, Salem trusts Patti to be able to execute the called passing plays and make the most of a broken play with his legs.
Despite the loss of one-time top target Mack, Addison, Jared Wayne and possibly Melquise Stovall and Jaylon Barden provide a strong group of pass-catchers, and the one-two punch of tight ends Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew will give Patti strong safety blankets.
While Patti likely won’t replicate Pickett’s beautiful rainbow deep balls to Addison or force the NCAA to change its rules with a miraculous 58-yard “fake slide” touchdown run, he will be expected to allow Pitt to pick up right where they left off against Wake Forest in the ACC championship game.
And there’s no doubt that with a wide receiver like Addison, he’ll be the center of the offensive game plan still. If Patti sees No. 3 streaking across the middle of the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, he’s gonna let it rip.