How does a team coming off its best two-season stretch in decades go 3-9? A staggering dip in offensive production, for one.
It would be disingenuous to say that Pitt’s poor season resulted solely from poor offensive production, not when a good-not-great defense was plagued by poor tackling, punting continued to be a black hole and coaching decisions left little to be desired. But Pitt is still likely going bowling with even half-decent play offensively.
Pat Narduzzi and Mark Whipple didn’t see eye to eye, so despite an ACC championship in 2021, there was a parting of ways prior to the Peach Bowl appearance. Narduzzi wasn’t shy in voicing his displeasure with how Whipple ran his offense. Whipple turned Pitt into a successful aerial attack.
Narduzzi wanted to run the ball more. He turned to Frank Cignetti Jr. with the hopes of establishing that run-heavy offense he desires and after two unsuccessful seasons, Cignetti is out.
“I want to thank Frank for his service and dedication to our football program the past two years,” Pat Narduzzi said Sunday via Pitt’s press release. “We wish him the very best in his future endeavors.”
The Cignetti era was an abject failure — despite even a 9-4 season capped by a Sun Bowl victory in 2022.
He was the architect of an offense that cost Pitt five or six games over the last two seasons. Izzy Abanikanda, whom Cignetti did utilize correctly simply by handing him the ball 25 times a game, masked a lot of flaws in 2022. And without Abanikanda accounting for just about every yard and every score in 2023, the offense was one of the worst in the Power Five.
After leading the ACC with 41.4 points per game in 2021, under Whipple’s leadership, Pitt fell to 31.3 points per game in 2022 and 20.2 points per game in 2023 — halving total points per game in just two seasons.
Pitt finished the 2023 season 114th in points per game (20.2) and 113th in total offense (317.9) in college football. The passing offense was a disaster, with a handful of quarterbacks trying to run the offense, and the run game was non-existent for the majority of the season. Why?
A poor system that clearly did not resonate with the players brought in to execute the scheme. Execution is important, but if sustained failure to execute over a prolonged stretch says anything, it’s that Cignetti’s system — and maybe more importantly, his teaching — wasn’t working.
The system certainly didn’t work in games in 2023. Whether it was poor sequencing with his play calls, failing to put his players in the position to succeed through bland, predictable play-calling, or questionable personnel decisions that resulted in key playmakers receiving fewer and fewer touches by the week, it simply didn’t work.
“We want to be great at things,” Cignetti said at his first media appearance in January of 2022. “We don’t want to be good, we want to be great.”
When a team decides to just the ball 66 times as Syracuse did, running a never-before-seen Wildcat because the opposing coaching staff is entirely sure that Pitt is unable to keep up, it’s a slap in the face. And since-fired Dino Babers and the ‘Cuse staff were right. Pitt wasn’t able to keep up. That wasn’t great. It certainly wasn’t good either.
In the weeks leading up to his dismissal, Cignetti stressed the importance of continuity. He talked to the media for the final time on Nov. 1, and he pointed to continuity as being that key factor in establishing any sort of rhythm offensively — for a quarterback and an offense as a whole.
But you don’t have all this excess time in college football anymore. You’re lucky to get a year these days. Cignetti claimed that while it all started with coaching, the execution still wasn’t where it needed to be. That’s an indictment on talent evaluation, coaching across all phases and the system itself. And Cignetti was largely responsible for all of that.
“Football is the ultimate team game,” Cignetti said earlier this month. “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 have belief in yourself and your teammates, are life lessons.”
Cignetti said it starts with fundamentals and technique, and that it takes time. But there was only regression two years into the system. It was an outdated system that did not get 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 — was to put the entire offense in the best position to be successful.
A 19-point, 308-yard performance against Duke in the season finale didn’t cement Cignetti’s status, it was all but decided weeks ago, but it did highlight just how far Pitt had fallen. Cignetti — for all the goodness of his character — didn’t produce. He didn’t put his players in the best position to succeed, he didn’t attack opposing defenses with any sort of creativity, and he missed on his most important transfer portal decision.
Narduzzi said following the loss to Duke that there were 14 pages of takeaways from the season. He declined to name the most pressing takeaway from the season, instead saying there were a lot of them. That’s true. But as Pitt parted ways with Cignetti less than 24 hours after the loss to Duke, the most pressing was clearly identified.
Pitt wasn’t a good team in 2023. It’s hard to say anything else about a 3-win team, but it’s still a team that clearly had the talent to string together more than two wins against FBS opponents. The offensive output, complete ineptitude at times this season, was the No. 1 reason why Pitt faltered.
“We’re going to look at (why Pitt failed to score more than 20 points in half of its games in 2023), and find out what it is,” Narduzzi said Saturday. “Obviously, we’ve got to score more points and we’ve got to convert in the red zone and find out what we’ve got to do. But we’ve definitely got to score more points. That’s a fact.”
Pitt didn’t score enough points, one of the lowest scoring in college football this season, and the offense wasn’t able to string together enough consistency throughout the course of a game to even get into the red zone most of the time. Pitt needs to score more points, and Narduzzi realized that. That was the No. 1 problem facing his squad, and he’s taken the first step toward correcting it.
Cignetti, at the end of the day, simply did not do a good enough job teaching and running a modern college football offense, and that cost him his job. If Narduzzi isn’t able to effectively replace Cignetti now, it may cost him his job, too.