The majority of the fan base blames the 1-3 Pitt start on the play from the quarterback position, and anyone who’s really watched the games knows that would be accurate.
No doubt, Phil Jurkovec’s play this season has been under the line, but so have many Pitt players, position groups and coaches.
Unfortunately for Pitt, when so many players aren’t playing to their potential, or maybe they are and they’re just not talented enough to compete, it will result in struggles and that certainly has been the case this season with Pitt.
To make matters worse, injuries have started to pile up for Pitt. Matt Goncalves and Ryan Jacoby, two members of Pitt’s starting offensive line, are now out for the season. Linebacker Bangally Kamara missed Saturday’s game, as did Sean FitzSimmons, and Jurkovec himself sustained a first half injury and didn’t return.
With the upcoming schedule getting more difficult, unless things turn quickly, this could be a very long season for Pat Narduzzi’s crew.
Pitt’s obviously not of that mindset and will try and get back on track this Saturday night at Virginia Tech.
The big questions are, what can they do to get things turned around? Does this current roster have the personnel to start winning?
Personally, I believe they do, but the coaching staff has to be willing to make some changes to the lineup. Personnel usage isn’t the only issue, but it would be the first step to turning things around this season and for the future.
Five Things Pitt Should Do Going Forward
Replace Bub Means
This move is long overdue. The coaching staff has talked up Means since his arrival last season, but unfortunately, he hasn’t been productive. When you look at him, he has the size and speed that would intrigue any offensive coordinator, but it’s resulted in zero productivity. He’s been a starter for two seasons and someone that both Kedon Slovis and Jurkovec have targeted, but he’s just not a playmaker or someone who should be a starter at Pitt. In four games this season, Means has just six catches, despite being targeted numerous times. It’s time that Frank Cignetti Jr. replaces Means with Kenny Johnson or Zion Fowler-El. The future should be now for those young wideouts.
Feed the Tight Ends
For the second consecutive season, it’s mind-blowing that Gavin Bartholomew is a non-factor in Pitt’s offensive game plan. For the last two seasons, Bartholomew has been the most talented pass catcher in this offense but is rarely targeted. I can’t explain it, and to be honest, it’s been a huge failure in Cignetti’s second tenure at Pitt. Last season, Bartholomew had just 21 receptions and in four games this season, Gavin has just nine catches, which have been for an average of 24 yards per catch. Bartholomew is the top weapon in this offense and should be thrown to 10+ times per game. In fact, with how inconsistent the wide receivers have been, Bartholomew, Karter Johnson and the other tight ends should be targeted a lot more. Since we haven’t seen it in two years, I doubt it’s going to change, so unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until he plays in the NFL before we see how good Bartholomew can really be.
Don’t Ignore Rodney Hammond Jr.
I feel the same way about Bartholomew as I do about Rodney Hammond Jr. Bartholomew is Pitt’s best pass catcher and weapon, and Hammond is Pitt’s most talented running back. Assuming he’s healthy, Hammond should be getting the majority of the carries, the same way that Izzy Abanikanda did a season ago. In another offensive game plan that is hard to explain, Hammond has just 39 carries in four games. It’s inexcusable for a team’s best running back to be averaging just 10 carries per game. Like they did against West Virginia, Pitt got Hammond involved early but then ignored him. Against North Carolina, Hammond rushed the ball 14 times, nine of which came on the first two drives (which both resulted in touchdowns). Over the rest of the game, Hammond received just five carries. As I said, assuming he’s healthy, this usage makes zero sense and needs to change.
More Snaps for the Young Defensive Linemen
Pitt fans have been both spoiled and fortunate to watch some really talented defensive linemen over the last handful of seasons, many of whom have gone on to the NFL. This group of players has led all of college football over the last few seasons in sacks, which is a major reason for the success Pitt has enjoyed. Unfortunately, the Panthers lost a lot of talent from their 2022 defensive line, and this season, the productivity isn’t what we’ve become accustomed to. It’s not been bad, but it also hasn’t been game-changing as in years past. Fortunately, Pitt’s last few recruiting classes have brought in plenty of highly-rated talent into the program. I think the future should be now for some of these players. Let’s get a lot more snaps for Nahki Johnson, Isaiah Neal, Samuel Okunlola and Jimmy Scott. Johnson seemed to be the talk of camp, poised to have a breakout season, but where has he been? Although he hasn’t gotten much time, Okunlola seems to be around the ball and making plays when he’s in, find ways to get him more snaps. If the injury to FitzSimmons is long-term, let’s see Neal. I appreciate and respect what some of the seniors have given this program, but we know what we have with them, it’s time to explore the potential of the younger players and to see if their time is now.
Make it Easy on the Quarterbacks
It doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s Jurkovec or Christian Veilleux or Nate Yarnell, Cignetti has to be able to scheme up ways to give his quarterbacks easy throws. Quick, easy throws that get the ball out of the quarterbacks’ hand, utilizing the running backs and tight ends more, establishing the run game and allowing the quarterback to run play action. It’s been like pulling teeth with the quarterbacks this season, and the playcalling hasn’t helped. It’s seemed like as Pitt ran its offensive script over the first two drives or so of the last two games, the offense has had success, but it’s fallen off as the game has worn on — whether that’s been because of poor quarterback play or injuries or both. Cignetti’s offense simply hasn’t been good enough this season, and that needs to change.