It may sound like a weird choice, but if there’s a player that Pitt is missing from last season’s roster, it’s Marcus Minor.
Minor, a two-year starter at left guard who played 91% of Pitt’s offensive snaps over the last two seasons, provided a steady hand at a position of need on the interior of the line. His loss, maybe even more so than Carter Warren, has been felt this season.
Ryan Jacoby was expected to be the starter at left guard this season, but after suffering a season-ending injury in summer camp, Jason Collier Jr. started the season at left guard. And then it was Blake Zubovic — after Collier was benched, and true freshman BJ Williams slid into the lineup.
It hasn’t gone well. But it isn’t just at left guard. The offensive line as a whole has taken a step — or two — back this season.
A damning statistic that ESPN’s David Hale posted Wednesday illustrates just how bad the offensive line has been this season. Pitt has allowed pressure on 44.8% of drop backs this season — which is the worst mark in college football.
Pitt has allowed pressure on 44.8% of its dropbacks when the defense did not bring an extra pass rusher (i.e. no blitz).
That’s the worst mark in the country & up 34% from last year.
Of note: Alabama is 126th. Colorado is 125th.
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) September 20, 2023
The offensive line has been an issue ever since Week 1 against Wofford. But after a very, very poor performance against Cincinnati, Pat Narduzzi felt like Pitt bounced back a bit against West Virginia over the weekend.
“You compare five sacks to one sack, if stats are worth a darn — did we protect him like we want to? No,” Narduzzi said Monday at his weekly news conference. “I just go back to the last play of the game where we just get beat inside and the quarterback gets whacked. Like that’s — you sit back there. I’d like to see anybody sit back there and take that. It’s not easy.
“It can’t happen. It wasn’t like — there was no time to throw the ball, under duress or not. But you gave up one sack. A week ago, we gave up five, plus I forget how many — what did I say, 21 hits? That game is long gone just like this one is long gone.”
But there’s no denying that Pitt’s offensive line has taken a sharp downturn in production this season.
According to PFF, Kenny Pickett was pressured on just under 28% of his drop backs in 2021. Kedon Slovis was pressured on just under 36% of his dropbacks in 2022. And Phil Jurkovec has been pressured on 42% of his dropbacks this season.
It’s largely the same line that received the majority of snaps last season, with the exception of Minor, and it just hasn’t clicked to this point. Williams, Zubovic and Jake Kradel were mauled against Cincinnati. It may have been a better effort against WVU, but Matt Goncalves — the star left tackle — left with an injury in the fourth quarter.
The game plan against WVU was dictated by what the coaching staff was given. But run blocking also hasn’t been Pitt’s greatest forte this season either.
“You go back and watch the tape like a coach and watch missed blocks — not only miss a block but go the wrong way on the offensive line again or a tight end or a tackle or whatever it may be,” Narduzzi said. “But those opportunities — there are spots we’re getting five yards a carry, and we started off running the ball down the field.
“Because it was there, and we felt good, and it was like, okay, let’s go. Nobody goes into a game saying let’s run the ball 12 or 13 times, and we’re not going to throw it one time. That’s not the plan. The plan is you’re having success, let’s go. You just keep going with the flow. You don’t have a plan to do that.”
The Pitt offensive line isn’t going to change in a big way. Unless there are injuries, which there might be. But the core of Kradel, Zubovic, Goncalves and Taylor is set. It’s up to Collier, Williams or Ryan Baer to lock down that last guard spot.
Pitt needs Jurkovec to bounce back in a major way this season if there’s any hope of reaching preseason goals, and that cannot — and will not — happen without seriously improved blocking up front.
The first chance to bounce back comes against No. 17 North Carolina this weekend.