Israel Abanikanda masked a lot of problems for the Pitt offense last season, but that’s not much of a surprise for those who watched Pitt football last season. I just didn’t expect it to be this bad. I can’t name one thing a Frank Cignetti Jr. offense does well.
I know it may be unfair to say, “Oh, of course they’ll get worse after losing an All-American.” Obviously, having elite skill players is important. Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison were elite, and that turned out pretty well. But even without a Heisman finalist and Biletnikoff Award winner, there was enough talent last season to win double-digit games.
The offense was OK, good enough for nine wins and a largely successful season, but there was the potential for so much more. You take away last season’s All-American? The offense craters.
Pitt is on its third quarterback of the Frank Cignetti Jr. era, and it’s just not working. The Panthers are way, way down in scoring, racking up fewer yards than ever (especially on the ground) and there hasn’t been any level of consistency. It’s not unfair to say it’s one of the worst offenses in college football — certainly in the ACC.
Phil Jurkovec didn’t work (and Cignetti actually said that being benched wasn’t reflective of his play), and now Christian Veilleux is having his chance to run the offense. And the big word of the day — especially when it came to quarterback development — was continuity.
“Continuity for a quarterback is so imperative,” Cignetti said Wednesday after practice. “Whether it’s in college football, pro football, being able to play in the same system, have the same language, the same terminology, the same people around you, understand that, ‘This is what it’s going to look like when a play is called, and now I understand the defense and I understand what it’s going to look like and where I’m going to go with the ball.”
What has continuity gotten Pitt so far? The offensive install in Year 2 was supposed to be more seamless, especially with Cignetti handpicking Jurkovec to come in and run an offense that he was already familiar with, and that didn’t work. And even then, Cignetti said before the season that the plan was to bring Jurkovec in to compete with Slovis. Competition is nice, but how does that decision foster any sort of continuity?
Regardless, Slovis didn’t work, Jurkovec didn’t work, and the jury is out on Veilleux. At what point does it simply come down to the fact that the system isn’t working?
Veilleux is entering just his fourth career start against a very, very good Florida State team this weekend, so there shouldn’t be these lofty expectations upon his shoulders, but at some point, there has to be progress. There are quarterbacks across the country who come in and immediately provide a spark. How much longer do you continue to run a failing system in the hopes of establishing consistency with a third quarterback in two seasons?
And it’s clear that when Veilleux was brought in, the hope was to have him sit behind Jurkovec for a season before taking over next season with two seasons of eligibility left. That didn’t go according to plan.
“When he chose to come here back in January, we talked about it’s the journey,” Cignetti said. “What did we mean by that? He knew he had three years of eligibility, and it’s not where he was in January, but it’s where he wants to go in three years.”
You don’t have three years in college football anymore. You’re lucky to get one these days. And when Cignetti claims that it all starts with coaching, himself and the offensive staff, but execution still isn’t where it needs to be, that’s an indictment on either the players brought in or the system itself. And with the way Cignetti lavished praise on his players, that points to one area.
“Football is the ultimate team game,” Cignetti said. “For one play to be successful, it takes the other 10 guys to also do their job. Whether it’s the quarterback in the passing game, whether it’s the running back in the running game, it takes everybody. Football is a game of execution. I mean, really, football is a very simple game, it comes down to execution. You try to improve the individual to improve the group to improve the unit and it just takes everyone doing their job to the best of their ability.
“Our job as coaches is to put the play design hopefully to our advantage, and it’s hard. We talk about it all the time offense, life is difficult, football is difficult, the life lessons that we’re learning today to fight through adversity, being positive and having belief in yourself and your teammates, are life lessons.
“But to answer your question, it comes down to execution. Football really comes down to this: blocking, tackling, throwing, catching, covering. And we just gotta continue to coach the fundamentals better and put our guys in a position to be successful.”
Cignetti said it starts with fundamentals and technique, and that it takes time. There’s only been regression nearly two years into the system. It’s an outdated system that has not gotten the ball to its best players, which is ironic when considering the fact that Cignetti said that his job — as a play-caller, coordinator and quarterbacks coach is to put the entire offense in the best position to be successful.
What about Gavin Bartholomew?
“You want every young man to have opportunities, and you want every young man to have a chance to help the football team win,” Cignetti said. “And unfortunately, Gavin didn’t get touches. I need to do a better job getting Gavin more touches, hopefully, this week he gets some touches.
“Ultimately, the defense will determine where the ball goes depending on their coverages. The ball doesn’t always go to the primary receiver because they’ll take it away and it’ll go to the secondary. Gavin’s a big part of this offense, he’s had a really good season and hopefully, he gets more touches down the road here.”
Bartholomew has caught 17-of-23 targets (a team-high 73.9%) for 310 yards and a touchdown. One recorded drop, two contested catches in two chances, according to PFF, and a 130.3 NFL passer rating when targeted. He’s fourth on the team in targets this season — and it’s not even close.
So, what’s going on? Even the head coach wants to see more chances.
“As a head coach, I’d like to see Gavin obviously get more targets and play more plays,” Narduzzi said. “I think we’ve got to keep him on the field.”
Bartholomew is averaging just over three targets per game. And according to PFF, he played just 28 snaps against Notre Dame. 17 pass snaps. No targets. It doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible to justify. And that’s now the head coach and offensive coordinator hoping that he gets more targets.
How’s that for continuity? The best pass catcher on the roster still doesn’t have any sort of consistency in the offense through nearly two seasons.
Pitt Offense Through Eight Games
Scoring offense: 22.4 (100th)
Total offense: 312.6 yards per game (112th), fifth worst in Power Five
Passing offense: 208.4 yards per game(89th)
Rushing offense: 104.2 yards per game (115th), eighth worst in Power Five