Is a week off in the midst of a four-game losing streak really a week off for Pitt? Is there ever really a week off in the current landscape of college football?
No. To both of those questions. Pitt now sits in the precarious position of sinking deep into a season-ending hole, a hole that would result in the worst season of the Pat Narduzzi era in Pittsburgh.
Pitt needs changes. Narduzzi himself has promised change, after each week this season, actually, but the Panthers need it more than ever after a back-breaking loss to Virginia Tech continued a stretch of extremely poor play. What can be done?
If Pitt has ever needed a change, it’s now. It’s needed in the worst way.
“Have some good practices. There will be so much we have to — there will be so much that could have been better. Don’t get me wrong. When we watch the tape, we’re going to nitpick, and we’ll get better from game one to game two, I guarantee you that. There’s a lot of things we can clean up, for sure.”
“Everything. Everything. We have a lot to work on. Like I told the guys afterwards, last week there was no weaknesses. Maybe they thought they were too good; maybe they thought they were just going to show up today. But now you find out where your weaknesses are. I think coaches know on both sides of the ball. We played a few guys on offense and defense, and we’re going to find out who can make plays.”
After West Virginia:
“You guys are fast and want to pull the plug on somebody. That’s not how we do it. I’m a positive guy, try to stay positive and you start dumping people whether it’s a corner, a tackle or a quarterback, it’s not good for you. So, we’ll look at the tape, and it’s never one person. I know you guys want to point the finger at one person, and it’s not, so we all had a part in it. It starts with the game plan and we’ll get it right.”
After North Carolina:
“There’s no quit in that locker room. Let me just tell you. They’re upset. We’ll fix stuff, and we’re going to come back. I told them and I think I told maybe the media on Thursday that the team — maybe it was the radio show. The two teams that will be in the championship game at the end of the year will have one loss, guaranteed. There’s too much parity in this conference, and there’s going to be two teams with one loss I think in the division or in the conference.”
After Virginia Tech:
“We gotta bye week to figure out what we do well, what we don’t do well, stop doing what we don’t do well and do something better,” Narduzzi said. “And we gotta obviously change some things up. And that’s what we’ll do in the open week, is try to figure out what we gotta do to get first downs and touchdowns.”
Pitt has scored 15 touchdowns this season, which is tied for second-to-last in the ACC, but one of those touchdowns was a defensive score and another was a special teams score. That’s 13 offensive scores, and six came against winless Wofford. And with the fewest first downs in the ACC, it’s just been a struggle to move the football.
Pitt is second-to-last in the ACC in scoring offense, last in scoring offense (last in passing offense and second-to-last in rushing offense) and just having a very tough time doing much of anything.
What changes need to be made? Well, the offense needs a complete overhaul. Frank Cignetti Jr. simply hasn’t been good enough as the offensive coordinator. But that very likely isn’t changing in-season.
So, the quarterback needs to be better. That’s the No. 1 problem Pitt is facing, and it’s been that way since the loss to Cincinnati. With competent quarterback play, Pitt could very well be 4-1 entering the bye week.
Jurkovec was — and has been — a major problem. I don’t know if the quarterback problem is fixable, I don’t know what Pitt has in Christian Veilleux or Nate Yarnell, but I do know that there is no benefit to playing Jurkovec anymore. He’s a sixth-year quarterback who has actively contributed to three losses this season. There’s no future here.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter if Veilleux or Yarnell gives Pitt a better chance to win right now. It’s about seeing if either quarterback is capable of being the quarterback going forward. And if neither is, it’s back to the drawing board. But the only way to know for sure is to give them first-team reps, let them compete in games and see what happens. It has to start now.
If Jurkovec remains the quarterback after the bye week, it will be hard to take Pitt’s efforts to win seriously.
But, of course, it hasn’t been as if Jurkovec is at the wheel of a well-oiled machine either. According to PFF, he’s been under pressure on 43.2% of his dropbacks this season. And it’s never been worse than it was against VT, as he was pressured on 55.6% of his dropbacks.
It’s going to be hard to find cohesive blocking. Matt Goncalves and Ryan Jacoby are out for the season, and Jake Kradel has missed the last two games. A new-look offensive line, which features two young starters, played well against North Carolina but struggled immensely against VT.
I don’t know if it’s possible to make too many changes with the offensive line right now unless the coaching staff wants to mix and match first-time starters in actual in-game situations throughout the rest of the season. And there have already been three first-time starters this season (with little success).
But Pitt is looking toward the future already, and it may be a rough transition right now, but it could help in the long run. Ryan Baer, Terrence Moore, Branson Taylor and BJ Williams all have a future at Pitt. But it’s certainly been a struggle for the foursome as a whole this season.
Baer, in two starts, has allowed 10 pressures, five hurries and four sacks. He’s young, and he also has an extremely high upside. But now it’s about learning through in-game experience. Moore, in his first two starts, has allowed just one pressure and one sack. The coaching staff doesn’t need to make a change here, just a choice.
When Jake Kradel gets healthy, he should have a place in the starting unit. Moore at center, Kradel and Blake Zubovic at guard and Baer and Branson Taylor at tackle. Williams — as a true freshman — still needs a bit of growth at the college level.
I know it’s dependent upon the quarterback, and even the easy targets haven’t been completed (which is made harder by poor offensive line play), but the coaching staff needs to evaluate how it distributes targets, too — and actually scheme up ways to get its top targets open.
The prevailing message over the last season and a half has been how the Panthers will take what opposing defenses offer. It’s how Narduzzi classified the performance against VT.
“That big post is what we saw during camp,” Narduzzi said of the Bub Means touchdown. “It was a heckuva throw by Phil, and that’s what they gave us. They did that on the first series, they were giving it to us, and on the second series, it’s like ‘Okay, here we go.’ And then they just mixed it up from there. We didn’t do a good job of coming back and doing what we can do.”
Gavin Bartholomew needs more than three targets per game. Konata Mumpfield — when targeted — has been Pitt’s best wide receiver. Against VT, the pair caught all seven of their targets for 99 yards.
Bartholomew has caught all five of his targets over the last two games for 101 yards. Mumpfield has caught 12-of-15 targets for 147 yards. Feed them. Early, often, whatever. That’s been clear to see for weeks. And yet, the offensive game plan has been woefully unprepared to get Bartholomew or Mumpfield the football. There really isn’t any sort of offensive identity.
Kenny Johnson took a career-high 37 snaps against VT, burning his redshirt, yet he didn’t receive a single target. No carries. No chance to get involved in the game plan. This season counts now, he appears to be the WR1 of the future, make it count.
The RB1 of this season, Rodney Hammond Jr., had his worst game of the season against VT, but he wasn’t alone. Pitt racked up just 38 yards on the ground against the Hokies, and with the lack of aerial attack, it’s been hard to establish any sort of consistency on the ground. But Hammond is still the most talented running back Pitt has on its roster, and he needs his touches.
It’s a little bit easier on the defensive side of the ball. There isn’t a need to change the defensive identity or who is calling plays, but coming off a poor performance against VT (one that wasn’t helped by the Panthers’ struggles offensively), there’s no time to rest.
The defensive line hasn’t been as dominant this season, it wasn’t able to pressure Drones much in its latest matchup and it may be time to see if guys like Sean FitzSimmons and Samuel Okunlola and Nahki Johnson can handle a heavier workload. The linebacking corps has been a rollercoaster this season, but Braylan Lovelace is someone who is emerging as a difference-maker with increased reps.
The changes defensively are more so figuring out personnel, which young players can make an impact and shoring up weaknesses across all three levels, than the wholesale changes that need to be looked at offensively.
But make no mistakes, Narduzzi is entering his toughest test yet as the Pitt head coach.
“No question about it,” Narduzzi said. “No doubt about it. We haven’t been in this position and every week’s a challenge. We just gotta take it, it’s what we did, it’s how we’re playing right now.”
Narduzzi has promised changes — simple fixes and more effective play — every week this season, but he’s never needed it more than he does entering the second half of the season. And unfortunately for the Panthers, some of the problems may not be fixable in-season.