For the sixth straight year, the ACC Coastal has a new champion. For the fourth straight year they’ll face the Clemson Tigers. Coming from the Coastal this time is the Pittsburgh Panthers. It’s their first ACC Championship game appearance since joining the conference in 2013.
Despite a week 13 loss to Miami, they win the Coastal Division with a 6-2 conference record, one win better than Georgia Tech and two wins better than Miami, Virginia Tech, and Virginia. To help us preview this contest, we synced up with Mike Wilson (who you can following on Twitter) from Cardiac Hill, our Pittsburgh Panthers sister site. Enjoy!
STS: Congratulations are in order. After a brutal 3-4 start that included blowout losses to Penn State and UCF and a loss to North Carolina (who finished 2-9), Pittsburgh went 4-1 to win the Coastal Division at 7-5 (6-2). To what extent has the team exceeded expectations versus the Coastal being down? How do you evaluate this season and – more long-term – the program Coach Narduzzi is building up in Pittsburgh?
Mike: Back in July, Pitt was picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal in a preseason media poll, and Pitt was one of two teams to receive zero first-place votes. The Panthers were also coming off a 5-7 season and lacked an identity on offense. So expectations were low. The Coastal also had five teams with winning records in 2018 as opposed to three in 2017, so one could argue the division was more competitive. Given all that, Pitt probably defied expectations to a greater extent than the Coastal was down.
As for the season as a whole, the 7-5 record is a positive development, but Pitt could have a nine- or 10-win season right now with a more level-headed approach to out-of-conference scheduling. While that issue has led to some disappointment, this season still has to be viewed as a success by those around the program, as Pat Narduzzi has led Pitt to a point that seemed beyond its reach back in September.
With that said, Pitt is still a program with a ways to go in terms of establishing an identity and attracting elite talent. In recent years, it has lost recruiting battles for top prospects in its own backyard to Notre Dame, Penn State and West Virginia, which has forced Pitt to extend offers to less heralded recruits, rely on transfers, and recruit Florida extensively. But even as Narduzzi has been forced to adapt, he has found a way to put together winning seasons more often than not.
STS: Sophomore QB Kenny Pickett made a name for himself last season when he led Pittsburgh to a victory over the then 10-0 Miami Hurricanes. How has he acquitted himself to the starting QB role?
Mike: Pickett got off to a rough start in 2018 and was throwing interceptions with greater consistency than he was throwing touchdowns until about halfway through the season. He’s capable of great things and has been all along. That much was apparent in last season’s upset of Miami and the first half of this year’s season opener against Albany, in which he completed 13 of his 13 passes and threw for two touchdowns.
With that said, that game also exposed an issue of his. He fumbled on an attempt to leap over an Albany defender and seemed unable to get out of his own head the rest of the game. That issue has arisen a few times since then, but since Pitt faced Notre Dame, he’s looked like a different quarterback.
In the first half of the season, Pickett’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was 6-5. Since then, it’s 6-0. So he has clearly made an effort to clean up his mistakes. He also played the best game of his career against Wake Forest on Nov. 17, throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns on a 23-of-30 passing performance. Given all that, there’s a lot to be excited about, and he’s Pitt’s quarterback of the future. The only problem is Pitt needs him to step up now, and consistency is still a lingering concern.
STS: Pittsburgh has been very good running the ball but ranks outside the top 75 in passing (S&P+). That’s exactly the kind of offense Clemson is well-situated to defend. Boston College, with star RB AJ Dillon, is built similarly and didn’t score on offense (just a punt return TD). Conversely, South Carolina’s offense is built on passing to a strong WR corps and they racked up 510 passing yards while mostly abandoning the run.
How do you think Pittsburgh’s offensive style adjusts, if at all, going against Clemson’s defense? What player or matchup gives you the most optimism for Pittsburgh’s offense?
Mike: There’s no doubt Clemson knows how to stop the run, and that may well be a problem for Pitt. But Pitt’s rushing attack has greater depth than Boston College’s, as the Eagles have been reliant on Dillon and Dillon alone. Conversely, the Panthers have turned not only to their primary duo of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, but also to speedy alternatives, like V’Lique Carter and Maurice Ffrench.
While Dillon has averaged a decent 4.9 yards per carry this year, each of Pitt’s rushers has averaged 6.4 yards per carry or more. A lot of that is due to explosive plays that can change the momentum of a game, and given Pickett’s inconsistencies, Pitt is likely to rely on its proven strengths rather than depend on a young quarterback on the off chance that he might provide a slightly better matchup.
There’s no player or matchup that stands out as a clear cause for optimism from the Pitt point of view, but for the Panthers, the game likely hinges on their running backs breaking off explosive plays.
STS: When Clemson has the ball, what individual or position matchup gives you the most optimism that Pittsburgh can slow Clemson down? Which worries you most?
Mike: Considering the caliber of talent Clemson is working with, there isn’t an individual matchup that seems to bode well for Pitt in terms of slowing the Tigers down.
The most worrisome matchup is Clemson’s elite defensive line against a Pitt offensive line missing starting center Jimmy Morrissey. Morrissey was regularly graded as Pitt’s top lineman by Pro Football Focus, and his absence was felt against Miami, when the Hurricanes racked up six sacks and stifled Pitt’s offense. If Pitt doesn’t have that issue shored up by Saturday, this game will likely get ugly quick.
STS: Pittsburgh’s four-game win streak was snapped last week when they lost 24-3 at Miami, only gaining 200 yards in the process. What are the big takeaways from that loss? What did Miami do to shut down Pittsburgh’s offense? Is Clemson likely to replicate it?
Mike: Miami’s athletic defenders benefited from the porousness of Pitt’s offensive line, which was clearly staggered by the loss of Morrissey. But in addition to that, Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s play-calling was unimaginative and hamstrung the team further. Ultimately, Miami was able to stop Pitt by getting to Pickett regularly and limiting its passing attack. That forced the team to lean on the run to an unhealthy extent, and the result was a largely predictable and one-dimensional offense.
Clemson has the ability to shut down Pitt’s offense to the extent that Miami did, as it will field an even more talented defensive line. The Tigers also specialize in stopping the run, which could throw a wrench into Pitt’s game plan. And if Pitt is forced to throw the ball, that presents another set of issues, as Clemson ranks second in the nation with 43 sacks in 12 games. Given all that, the conditions certainly exist for the Panthers to absorb and even more severe beating than they did against the Hurricanes.
STS: Oddsmakers have the line at ~25 points. How do you think Pitt performs relative to those expectations?
Mike: Considering what Clemson is capable of and what Pitt allowed worse teams than Clemson, like Miami and Penn State, to do this season, it’s possible Pitt could take its worst loss of 2018 on Saturday -- and that would entail a deficit of 25 or more points.
The Panthers are also known for pulling off inexplicable upsets, as Clemson is well aware, and one could argue they’re due for one this season, but with the Tigers fighting to remain in the College Football Playoff, it’s unlikely they’ll allow Pitt to turn this into much of a game.
STS: A big thanks to Mike Wilson for helping us preview the Panthers. There will not be a corresponding article on their site, but be on the lookout for a depth chart and statistical analysis article coming here on STS shortly!