Pitt’s offense — somehow — is only just now entering middle-of-the-pack territory in the ACC. There have been key injuries to basically every major contributor on the offense, sure, but Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech highlighted just how inconsistent the unit has been this season.
And the inconsistency has consistently been the only thing the offense can promise on a weekly basis — aside from maybe Israel Abanikanda when he’s in the lineup.
Pat Narduzzi has a weekly list of four or five key points he wants to emphasize on Saturday. A couple offensively and a couple defensively, and the two areas that he wanted to prioritize against Georgia Tech ended up being the catalysts for a loss.
“My number one key to victory last week,” Pat Narduzzi said. “Every week I’ve got four or five keys to victory, the number one was start fast. … Honest to God, it was start fast and be plus in the turnover ratio, okay? We didn’t do either one of them. We’re supposed to start fast, right? We can talk about it, but we’ve got to go do it. We can tell them what to do, but we’ve got to execute, make plays and play Pitt football. That’s what it comes down to.”
Pitt started off with three consecutive three and outs, the first five drives resulting in punts or a turnover on downs. It took six drives for Pitt to find any sort of rhythm offensively, a 75-yard scoring drive at the end of the first half. But any hope of the scoring drive being used as a launch point evaporated as Pitt turned the ball over on three of its first four second half possessions — resulting in 13 points for Georgia Tech.
Pitt’s offense racked up 411 total yards Saturday, but 167 of those yards came during the final two offensive possessions in the fourth quarter. It took a long, long time for Pitt’s offense to find any sort of consistency against a Georgia Tech defense that wasn’t known for being stellar. And it didn’t help the defense as the three turnovers gave GT the ball inside Pitt territory all three times.
Narduzzi said earlier this week that increased knowledge and hyperfocused details will be important as the season wears on into ACC play, and while he may have seen a more intense level of preparation this week, it’s not as if it’s a team that’s completely changing how it operates on a weekly basis.
“I think so, but we focus on them every week,” Narduzzi said. “Sometimes it’s a mindset, I don’t know. We don’t change how we coach weekly all of the sudden. ‘Hey, let’s not turn the ball over this week. Let’s focus on ball security.’ No, we talk about ball security every single day and work on it. So, from ball security to pass protection to reading your keys — we do it every day. There’s no day where we go, ‘Let’s not focus on that, let’s just let it go.’ So, maybe it was more focus for them. So, if they felt like there was more of a focus, then there should be. We preach it, but you’ve gotta do it too. We’ve got to do a better job of coaching it.”
It’s kind of impressive in a weird way, but Pitt’s offense — despite the ACC’s second-leading rusher in Abanikanda — is about as mediocre as there is in the conference this season.
- Scoring – 33 points per game (8th of 14)
- Total offense – 417.4 yards per game (9th of 14)
- Rushing offense – 166.4 yards per game (8th of 14)
- Passing offense – 251 yards per game (8th of 14)
- First downs – 113 (8th of 14); 22.6 per game (9th of 14)
- Third down conversions – 39.4% (8th of 14)
- Red Zone offense – 78.9% (11th of 14)
Kedon Slovis has missed six quarters this season, the second half of the Tennessee game and the entire Western Michigan game, and his impact on the offense hasn’t quite been what many hoped for through the early portion of the season.
Slovis completed 26-of-45 pass attempts for 305 yards and three touchdowns and an interception against Georgia Tech, but it would be unfair to simply read the box score. About half his yardage and two touchdowns came over Pitt’s final two offensive possessions.
It’s not as if Slovis doesn’t have the capability to push the football downfield, he’s shown his ability both at USC and during short sequences at Pitt, but it comes back to consistency again. There has not been a threat to push the football downfield this season, and while the ability may be there, it’s not a serious threat at this point.
There has been an offensive emphasis to take what the respective defense played has given this season, and Narduzzi has been averse to taking more than what’s given to the offense — averse to trying to push the play themselves.
“You can force ’em, but force is a bad word,” Narduzzi said. “That’s usually, ‘Oh, man, you forced it in there.’ You can be the aggressor, but again that gets you in trouble too, because it’s like you’re forcing into something that’s not there.”
When it comes to walking the fine line between checking the ball down and sitting back in the pocket to take chances downfield, Narduzzi said Pitt has to do. a little bit of both — but that hasn’t been the case this season.
“For deeper balls, you’ve got max protection, or you’ve got more guys staying in there to protect normally,” Narduzzi said. “And then for a short gain, you can go empty and get the ball out quick if you want to, but you’ve got to protect him, you’ve only got five to protect, so there’s a fine line. That’s why you don’t all do the same thing. You can’t just do the same thing every snap. You can’t just go three-step because then everybody will sit on your route. You can’t just drop back and try to max protect and chuck it deep all the time. That’s why people go to RPOs, which is kind of the new three-step.”
Pitt faces Virginia Tech this weekend, a team that has played well defensively this season, and the goal this week may not be just to start fast. Start fast, start slow, just make plays.
“We’ve got to execute,” Narduzzi said. “That’s what we do every day — practice to execute those plays properly.”
Pitt’s offense and defense watched the Georgia Tech game over the last week, many times for some players, but Narduzzi made sure to highlight two plays. The first offensive and defensive snaps of the game.
Pitt’s defense took to the field first, after Georgia Tech won the opening coin toss and elected to receive, and it still almost resulted in a Pitt touchdown. Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims stood in the pocket, stared down his receiver in Nate McCollum and Erick Hallett read it the entire way. Hallett jumped the route, got both of his hands on the football and must’ve dreamed of the end zone — as the ball bounced to the turf.
“First play on defense, it was played perfectly, everybody is perfect and we’ve got an interception for a touchdown,” Narduzzi said. “That’s starting fast, right? That’s how you start fast, an interception for a touchdown. It’s probably a totally different outcome.”
Pitt would allow a 37-yard field goal later in the drive, and the offense would come out with three straight passes — a real quick three and out, the first of three straight. But Narduzzi also saw how that, too, could’ve swung differently.
Slovis didn’t have much time in the pocket as an exchange between Branson Taylor and Marcus Minor on the left side of the offensive line led to a free rusher through the A gap effectively eliminating a play in which Pitt had a player open across the middle of the field.
“And then the first play on offense, Kedon gets hit and there’s a guy free through the line of scrimmage because we have a lineman who goes the wrong way, and he can’t see it because there are two big, white jerseys in his way and he can’t see there’s a guy wide open,” Narduzzi said. “The next play we drop a pass, so that’s not starting fast. I don’t know what else we can do except give them opportunities to get open, opportunities to make plays and then they’ve got to go finish. We will. Starting fast is critical. Making plays is critical. We can start slow, just make plays.”
Pitt will once again want to start fast against Virginia Tech this weekend, but if it starts slow, makes plays and doesn’t turn the football over, that’s not a bad thing either.