With all due respect to the likes of Bryce Corriston, Emory Jones, Garrett Greene and Nicco Marchiol, Pitt is in for an entirely different test this week against North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
Maye, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound second-year starter, tested Pitt last season in Chapel Hill, N.C. and passed — literally — with flying colors. He shredded the Pitt secondary to the tune of 388 yards and five touchdowns, adding 61 yards on the ground, in a 42-24 beat down — with 28 unanswered in the second half.
And it wasn’t as if Pitt played all that poorly for the majority of the contest. Maye is just a quarterback who sit back in the pocket and hit any throws he wants off of arm talent alone, or he can escape the pocket and fire a 40-yard dart to the back corner of the end zone on the move.
As Pat Narduzzi said Monday, it will be a little bit different this week with Maye in town after a few weeks of run-heavy opposing offenses.
“This week we’re going to go from playing the wishbone and run to the first or second pick in the draft throwing it wherever he wants to because he can make every throw,” Narduzzi said. “Pressure doesn’t bother the guy because he can really run. He’s elusive, and not a quarterback run guy, but it’s scramble to throw the football down the field and get first downs if he has to.”
It’s a new-ish offense under offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who spent the 2022 season at UCF, but it’s still a pro-style system under head coach Mack Brown’s watchful eye.
“I think the O-line coach and the quarterback coach went to Wisconsin, so Chip Lindsey is a new guy,” Narduzzi said. “Came from UCF, worked with Gus Malzahn for a long time, very creative, does some great stuff, and again, has got one of the best if not the best quarterback, NFL-pro-style quarterback in the country.”
Maye doesn’t have the gaudy stats that he did through three games last season, but he has played South Carolina, App State and Minnesota this season compared to Florida A&M, App State and Georgia State last season.
And he’s still completed 74-of-102 pass attempts (73%) for 891 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions — adding 116 yards and another touchdown on the ground.
There aren’t any major differences between this season and last season either. He’s completing his passes at a higher clip (66% to 73%) with a slightly higher yardage per attempt (8.3 to 8.7). His percentage of big-time throws (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window) is just slightly below where it sat last season.
“One thing you notice just as you put on the film right away on Sunday, the ball jumps out of his hand,” Cory Sanders said Tuesday after practice. “You can really see just some of the throws that he can make. Sometimes he’s moving out of the pocket, and he’s throwing back across his body to the middle of the field, so you’re seeing him throw multiple different throws on the field.
“You’re seeing some corner routes, tight level two ball right there to that receiver — splitting some guys — so you can see that. He’s a quick processor and at the same time, he can escape. He can escape out of the pocket and extend plays. So, he’s a good runner, and he’s a good thrower. He’s a dual-threat type of guy from that standpoint with a good arm.”
If anything, anything is holding Maye back this season, it’s his wide receiving corps. Josh Downs and Antoine Green graduated, expected No. 1 wideout Tez Walker was declared ineligible by the NCAA and UNC receivers have dropped seven passes this season.
J.J. Jones and Nate McCollum (a Georgia Tech transfer) are the top options for Maye this season — McCollum especially. And the Pitt secondary will have its first true test of the season.
The Pitt defense was able to contain Maye throughout much of the first half last season, aside from a few scrambles and an absolute dime to Green for a 16-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone. But after Calijah Kancey was ejected at the end of the first half, as the pass rush died off, Maye grew more and more comfortable.
“And because Maye can scramble, we lost our faith in doing what we needed to do, and that’ll never — to me, why did we get smoked? It was because we stopped doing the little things right in coverage,” Narduzzi said. “Just because he’s scrambling and maybe we’re not putting pressure on him, we’ve got to hold true to who we are and do what you’re supposed to do, don’t start to — again, it’s no different than what everybody else does.
“It’s throw it into coverage; hey, got to go make a play so I’m going to not cover (somebody), and I’m going to come over here and do this, and then all of a sudden it just trickles down all the way to the DBs.”
I don’t want to compare Maye to Phil Jurkovec, but when there’s been pressure in Maye’s face this season, he’s relied upon an arm nearly without equal to get him out of a jam.
In his defense, it usually works. Maye has the arm strength and the touch to make any throw on the football field. But when plays break down and he’s forced to improvise, it leads to sloppy play. He trusts that he’ll be able to throw himself out of any predicament. And that’s where he’s vulnerable.
He’s only been pressured on about 30% of his drop backs this season, but he’s completing just 43% of his pass attempts with three interceptions in those instances. Maye trusts that his superior arm talent will win out. It doesn’t always. And that’s where Pitt needs to make plays.
Maye is shredding defenses when he’s given a clean pocket, he’s nearly as effective when opposing defenses blitz as compared to when they don’t. It’s those moments under pressure where Pitt needs to make plays on footballs that any other quarterback wouldn’t have the faith to throw.
As he was last season, Maye is one of the best deep ball quarterbacks in college football. He’s completed 10-of-18 pass attempts over 20 yards for 381 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. 8 big-time throws. 1 turnover-worthy throw. And that’s all with two drops. But it isn’t just deep balls. Maye is efficient in hitting his throws over the middle of the field.
And it’s those times when Maye decided to gamble, to launch a deep ball into contested coverage because he believes his arm talent will win out, that the Pitt secondary needs to make plays.
Pitt didn’t force a single turnover last season against Maye. That cannot be the case this season.
“So, I know our secondary is excited about the opportunity based on last year,” Narduzzi said. “I know coach (Cory) Sanders and coach (Archie) Collins are up for the challenge, and obviously coach (Ryan) Manalac, the linebacker coach, because those linebackers become really, really critical at covering up the safeties and everything they can do with the passing game.”
It will be a long night for M.J. Devonshire, Marquis Williams and A.J. Woods. But as Narduzzi pointed out, the linebackers and safeties will need to be dialed in. The defensive ends will need to contain Maye’s scrambling, but UNC has run the ball 41 times per game this season, too.
Omarion Hampton (who ran for 234 yards and three touchdowns against App State) and British Brooks provide a 1-2 punch at running back.
“But at the end of the day, you know these guys are going to throw the ball. I think they threw it 42 times on us last year. Obviously, they’re going to put it in the air, but they want to be able to run the ball, too.
“You’re always up for a challenge. This is why you come here to play, so you can be placed in these positions to be able to make these plays. And it’s up to us to go out there, challenge those receivers, challenge their quarterback and make some plays Saturday.”
If Pitt wants to hang around with North Carolina and potentially upset the Tar Heels, the defense will need to make some plays. Maye will make plays, that’s unavoidable, but when he gambles, the defensive backs and the linebackers need to force turnovers. And of course, Pitt needs to generate a consistent pass rush and make life difficult on Maye.
But on the flip side, Pitt cannot turn the ball over itself. And a number of three-and-outs that give Maye and the offense extended chances won’t do either. Pitt needs to establish the run game and put points on the scoreboard with sustained drives.
But it will be a tall task for Pitt with Maye under center on the other side of the ball.
“I would be shocked if he’s not the first pick next year regardless of who wins the Heisman Trophy and all that baloney, when they do all their evaluations on character, the kid is an unbelievable young man,” Narduzzi said. “Drake is a phenomenal quarterback, and I don’t know how we do it, but that’s what we practice for, and we won’t be perfect, I can promise you that. He’s going to make throws like he did last year.”