When Kedon Slovis didn’t play against Western Michigan, he knew that since he was cleared but not quite right following his injury against Tennessee, he would play against Rhode Island.
Rhode Island provided Pitt with the chance to fine-tune any areas that needed some oiling, which was primarily the passing attack — the deep ball, to be specific — and many expected Slovis would be ready to go out and attack Rhode Island downfield.
That certainly didn’t happen.
Slovis did complete 20 of his 27 passing attempts against Rhode Island, yes. That’s a solid 74% completion, but his average depth of target was just 3.0 yards. A healthy dose of yards after catch inflated his yards per attempt to 6.9 yards.
Slovis only had to drop back seven times against Rhode Island, as the Rams emphasized dropping back into coverage to take away passing attempts, and Pitt didn’t allow a sack. In part because of Pitt’s reliance on screens and getting the ball out of Slovis’s hand.
Of Slovis’s 27 passing attempts, 22 came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage — 11 behind the line of scrimmage and 11 within nine yards. He completed all 11 passes behind the line for 84 yards and 9-of-11 passing attempts between zero and nine yards for 102 yards.
The deep pass wasn’t a factor — at all. Slovis attempted two passes between 10-19 yards and just one pass over 20 yards, and all three attempts fell incomplete.
Slovis said it came down to Rhode Island attempting to take away the deep ball, parking a safety in the secondary to play as a de-facto centerfielder and switching up coverages.
“We tried to dial up some shots, and you just have to be a good decision maker, check it down,” Slovis said. Saturday. “That’s why you see checking down to Izzy a few times or Konata. They get explosive plays from check downs. They were playing defense to stop those deep shots.”
Pitt did rush for 271 yards against Rhode Island, including a new career-high 177 yards from Israel Abanikanda, and Slovis feels like Pitt’s offense is able to operate effectively on the ground and through the air based on defensive matchups.
“I feel really good that we can do a lot of different things depending on the strengths of the defense we play and our matchup,” Slovis said Saturday. “I think we’re really efficient too. All these games, we don’t have a lot of drives, but we’re scoring on a high percentage of those drives, so I think that’s important. It also helps your defense too when you don’t keep them on the field for all these hurry-up offenses.”
The rushing attack has been fueled by Abanikanda, his 479 yards (at 5.8 yards a pop) lead the ACC, but it hasn’t been a one-man show either. Rodney Hammond Jr. ran for 74 yards in Pitt’s first game before being sidelined by an injury, Vincent Davis has added 148 yards on the ground (at 6.4 yards a pop) and Daniel Carter and C’Bo Flemister have added when needed.
The run game — especially against Rhode Island as Abanikanda wasn’t touched on any of his four rushing touchdowns — has been an offensive strength all season. And Frank Cignetti Jr. has wanted to establish the run game.
The passing game has been up and down, but it’s also been inconsistent in who has been operating under center. Slovis has missed six quarters in four games. Nick Patti played his two quarters injured this season. Nate Yarnell made his college debut. It hasn’t been a recipe for offensive consistency.
Even so, Slovis has completed just one of his eight pass attempts over 20 yards this season. His lone completion was graded as a big-time throw by Pro Football Focus. He’s also had a deep ball dropped by Bub Means and another bounce off his hands for an interception.
Oddly enough, Yarnell has been Pitt’s best deep ball passer this season. And it came off his reads. Against Western Michigan, Yarnell completed all three of his attempts 20 yards downfield for 111 yards — the first completions of 20 yards all season.
However, even with the lack of a deep ball, Slovis has utilized Pitt’s offensive weaponry this season. Through two and a half games, he’s completed 51-of-76 pass attempts for 689 yards and two touchdowns. He hasn’t been helped by drops or the offensive line at times either.
Slovis has showcased a deep ball ability during his college career, during his time at USC, and it hasn’t yet been unlocked at Pitt. Jared Wayne, Pitt’s only consistent receiver so far this season, wasn’t active against URI, and that certainly didn’t help with the deep ball. But Slovis has taken the lessons learned at USC and applied them at Pitt.
Slovis credits Frank Cignetti Jr. for helping to teach him that fine line between gambling on deep balls as a gunslinger and taking what the defense gives while checking down to the running back. It comes with increased reps, and Slovis was able to grow in terms of knowing where his check downs are and realizing timing and when to take risks when passing downfield.
“I think every time you throw it, you kinda want to show it or let it rip,” Slovis said. “With the deep ball, if there’s somebody sitting back there playing centerfield, you can’t make that throw. And there’s been times when I was younger when I was like, ‘Hey, I can make this throw.’ And it’s like, ‘No, you really can’t.’ The guys sitting there waiting for it.”
So, while Slovis feels as though he’s learned and grown into a quarterback who is able to recognize when a check down for four yards is better than a 40-yard throw that has just as high a probability to be intercepted, he still feels like Pitt’s offense is able to effectively pass or run the football.
Slovis pointed to the first half of the Tennessee game.
In the first half of the Tennessee game:
Pitt drove 43 yards on nine plays — hitting Gavin Bartholomew on a 14-yard pass and Jared Wayne on an 18-yard pass — to enable a 30-yard Ben Sauls field goal.
Pitt drove 76 yards on one play. Abanikanda’s longest rush of the season — although he’s gotten close since.
Pitt drove 40 yards on five plays. Slovis hit Wayne for an 18-yard completion and had a defensive pass interference call set up a 1st-and-10 from the Vols’ 21. The drive ended in an interception of Means’ hands.
Pitt drove 83 yards in six plays. This drive came courtesy of a 57-yard Gavin Bartholomew touchdown courtesy of a hurdle, not exactly a deep throw, but a play in which Slovis stood tall in the pocket and delivered a perfect throw.
The final three drives of the half ended in two punts and a fumble. However, Slovis still completed 14-of-24 pass attempts for 195 yards and a touchdown against the current No. 8 team in college football — in the first half. Slovis feels like Pitt is equipped to take what the defense allows.
“I think we can do whatever the defense kinda gives us,” Slovis said. “This game you look at the matchup and how they played knowing they were gonna drop a lot. … Whatever we see on film, we’re gonna attack.”
Slovis said as a quarterback and competitor, he wants to let the football rip. But he also wants to do what’s best for the team. And he feels like the offense as a whole feel that — himself, the running backs and the wide receivers. It’s a team sport and everyone wants to win.
When it comes to Slovis’s performance against Rhode Island in his first game back, Pat Narduzzi was thought it went about as well as expected.
“I think it was okay,” Narduzzi said Saturday. “Again, he was efficient with the football, 20 of 27. Took what they were giving us. Didn’t make bad decisions throwing the ball into coverage down the field, and I thought he was good.”
Pitt is 3-1 exiting non-conference play. The lone loss came to the now-No. 8 team in the county with an injured Nick Patti under center. It could be much, much worse for Pitt. At 3-1, ranked inside the Top 25, if only, conference play is a way for Pitt to rise up the rankings and secure another ACC title berth.
The offense has been inconsistent. It has used three quarterbacks. The run game with Abanikanda — and a healthy Hammond — is there. The only want has been the deep ball. It certainly hasn’t been there, but with Slovis fully — and Wayne recovered for conference play — there shouldn’t be an issue of talent.
Slovis has the arm talent to make to make any throw on the football field. He hasn’t had the consistency and reps. Wayne has been one of the best wide receivers in the ACC — he just needs to be healthy. Konata Mumpfield, Bub Means, Jaylon Barden and Jaden Bradley have talent, but the added consistency needs to be there.
Mumpfield, especially, has all the talent in the world. He’s quick, a route running whiz and immensely tough to cover in short spaces, but he hasn’t come up with the tough catches through four weeks. He’s only a sophomore, and it’s tough to add that Jordan Addison replacement expectation, but he was supposed to be the guy. He hasn’t been.
Pitt needs a compliment to Wayne in the receiving game, a fully healthy Slovis and the chance to show it with Abanikanda dominating defensive eyes. If Pitt wants to repeat as ACC champs, the deep ball needs to be there.
Kenny Pickett completed 38 passes over 20 yards last season, for 1,299 yards and 17 touchdowns, serving as one of the best deep ball passers in college football. Pitt has completed four through four games this season — three of which came from Yarnell.
Pitt is a Top 25 team in the country, and it’s come in large part because of the rushing attack and timely defensive turnovers. Once the deep ball is able to connect, the offense should reach an all-new level.