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Shawn Watson: A Disappointing Tenure as Pitt Offensive Coordinator

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Former Pitt football offensive coordinator Shawn Watson

Shawn Watson will return to Pittsburgh this Saturday, Sept. 2 as he takes on his former program, Pitt, in the 2023 season opener.

Watson is now the head coach of Wofford, after earning the position following a 3-3 record as the interim head coach to end the 2022 season. He spent two seasons as offensive coordinator under Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi in 2017 and 2018. Throughout that time, Watson did not do well in his position, made himself a target of abuse from Panthers fans and did not improve the offense at all.

Pitt excelled offensively in 2016 under then offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL.

They averaged a school record 42.3 points per game, with future NFL Players in quarterback Nathan Peterman, running back James Conner and offensive linemen Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty leading the way. Pitt was also the only Power 5 school to score 28 points or more in every game that season, demonstrating their dominance on that side of the ball.

The 2021 ACC Championship team, as a comparison, averaged 41.4 points per game with Heisman Finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett, Biletnikoff Award Winner Jordan Addison and others leading the way.

Watson had a tough task to replace a lot of that talent that left, and this became most apparent at quarterback.

USC transfer Max Browne won the starting job to start the 2017 season, but then after a poor performance against then No. 4 Penn State, redshirt freshman Ben DiNucci took the job. DiNucci would struggle against No. 9 Oklahoma State and Browne came back in. After a great game against Rice, Browne suffered a season-ending injury against Syracuse and DiNucci came back to the starting role.

DiNucci struggled to hold that starting spot the rest of the year, as Pickett came in and would play every now and then, before playing more against Virginia Tech and then starting against No. 2 Miami in the final game of the season.

Pickett had a great game against the top ranked Hurricanes, but the Panthers finished 2017, 5-7, and the offense was incredibly poor. The team finished No. 97 in total offense, No. 87 in rushing and No. 73 in passing. The Panthers also averaged 23.9 points per game, No. 101 in the nation, failing to score more than 20 points four times and less than 30 points five times.

The 2018 season did not go well for Shawn Watson either, as Pickett failed to develop as the true starter that he eventually would under future offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple. Pickett finished No. 10 in the ACC with 140.6 passing yards per game, 12 passing touchdowns and a 120.3 efficiency rating that year. Pitt ended No. 121 out of 129 FBS teams in passing offense as well.

Watson’s only solid contribution was allowing both senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall to consistently star for the team on offense. Both players ran for more than 1,000 yards, the first time ever in Pitt history that two players had ever done so. Pitt finished with 227.9 rushing yards per game, No. 18 in the country.

The Panthers had a successful year in 2018, winning the ACC Coastal Division Title for the first time ever, but the final three games of the season ended the Watson era forever.

Pitt scored three points in a 21-point loss to Miami in the regular season finale, 10 points in a blowout defeat to No. 2 Clemson in the ACC Championship game and then only 13 points in a one-point loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl.

One of the most infamous stat lines for Watson came in that ACC Championship loss. Pickett completed four of his 16 pass attempts for eight yards and one interception in a downpour loss to the superior Tigers.

In the final three games of 2018, Pickett would complete 29 of 67 passes, 43.3% for 244 yards, 0 touchdowns and that one interception.

The rushing offense also stalled towards the end of Watson’s final season. They had 69 yards on 38 carries against Miami, 48 carries for 191 yards against Clemson and 42 carries for 208 yards against Clemson. While the final two games aren’t terrible stats, without a reliable passing attack, the Pitt offense failed to succeed at the end of 2018.

Narduzzi fired Watson, along with wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman, shortly after that season finished. He replaced Watson with Whipple and once things got going in 2021, the Pitt offense finally got back to where they needed to be to succeed.

The most important part of any modern college football offense is how to create the best passing attack. Teams seldom run triple-options or other run-heavy offenses in this era of the game and relying exclusively on your running game doesn’t see much success in the long run.

Shawn Watson failed to create a successful passing offense while at Pitt and that led to his unsurprising demise. Watching the offense under his tutelage was a form of “torture” for any fan or viewer of a Pitt game interested in seeing a solid passing plan.

With his return coming this Saturday, one can only ponder of the “colorful” insults that Panthers fans will shout his way when they announce his name on the loud speakers.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Eli
Eli
9 months ago

Harsh but fair.

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