The ACC championship game is weird. On the Atlantic side, the division has been won by Clemson or FSU every year since 2009, with one of the two often being national championship caliber. On the Coastal side? Parity... kind of. There have been six different division winners in a row. The Atlantic has won the title game each year since 2011. That said, we all know that Pitt has slain giants before. Panthers QB Kenny Pickett ended Miami’s undefeated runt last year. Folks, we lost to Nathan freakin’ Peterman in recent memory. Anything can happen.
Pittsburgh comes to Charlotte with a clear identity on offense. As Dabo put it, “It’s three runs to every pass and they come right at you.” Senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall are deservedly all-ACC backs, and have combined for over 2,000 yards on the ground. Quarterback Kenny Pickett has a strong arm, doesn’t turn the ball over, and can run the option efficiently enough to punish teams that overcommit against Pitt’s backs. In addition, speedsters such as Maurice Ffrench and V’Lique Carter diversify the running game with frequent jet sweeps and end-arounds.
The entire starting line, if healthy would, either be All-ACC picks or honorable mentions. Starting center Jimmy Morrissey however waslost for the season at the end of the Wake Forest game. Last weekend Miami’s talented front shut Pitt’s offense off. The Hurricanes were able to hold Pitt to 200 yards and just 3 points. Miami had 14 TFL’s and 6 sacks, with the Panthers going 1/15 on often long third downs. It’s possible Pitt was looking ahead to Clemson, and possible Miami wanted revenge for last years upset, but what’s concerning is this is the second week in a row Pitt’s running game has struggled. Wake Forest was able to give the Panthers running game issues by packing the box, a move that Venables likely plans to repeat. It is, in Venable words, “Football 101. You know you’ve got to stop the run.”
How the Pitt offensive line holds up against Clemson’s front 7 early will tell you a lot about how this game will go. Clemson has one of the best rush defenses in the country. The teams that have moved the ball on the Tigers have typically found success through the air. That is not a good sign for Pittsburgh. Unlike the receiver driven Gamecock offense that gave Clemson so much trouble, the Pitt offense goes through the running backs. The Panthers remind me of Boston College with that. Boston College didn’t score an offensive touchdown.
The Panthers shift between personnel pretty heavily, but they usually have a tight end or fullback on the field. The base groupings are 11 or a 12 personnel group with fullback George Aston moving around. Pitt can operate from under center, in the shotgun, or in the pistol. Pickett seems more comfortable throwing drop back passes when not under center though. The running game uses inside zone, power, counter, outside zone and option schemes. The most dangerous running scheme is outside zone, which allows Pitt’s backs to use their explosiveness (6th in Bill C’s rushing marginal explosiveness) and cutback ability to create big plays.
The Panthers like to run jet sweeps or use the motioning receiver as a decoy/crack blocker. One of their favorite ways to do this is to attach a jet sweep to one side with inside zone to the other side.
The skill position players lead blocking to one direction while the offensive line goes to another, combined with the backfield action, creates a lot of misdirection. Pitt fullback George Aston is a good lead blocker and the Panthers use him in a variety of ways, such as when he “wham” blocks the defensive tackle here. If Pitt can get their base runs working they can use their counters (which are still often part of the running game) to give defenses fits.
On top of this Pickett is pretty good at running the option. Pitt likes to use the same blockers from the jet sweep package to lead Picket around the edge from a full house pistol formation.
Pickett can also run the zone read and speed option effectively from the shotgun. The threat of the 220 lbs Pickett keeping the ball inside on bash runs helps to get Pitt’s speedsters open.
Add in a bunch of end-arounds, unbalanced formations and motion and you can see how this offense can punish undisciplined teams. This is a complex and varied running game that spreads the ball around and keeps the chains moving in 3rd and short.
The passing game is much more rudimentary. The majority of the under center passing is play-action, and while Pickett’s arm can burn teams deep he misses more of these than he hits unless there’s a coverage bust. Pickett is completing only 62% of his passes for a reason.
Pickett hasn’t had an interception his last few games, and he won’t force bad throws, but he can’t throw guys open either. Pitt likes to get Pickett out of the pocket where he can use his legs. A side effect of this and the offenses conservative nature is that Pickett throws the ball out of bounds or to his check down a lot. He averages just 5.5 yards per attempt.
Pitt doesn’t have much of a screen game and only throws quick passes when they have to. The drop back passing game isn’t better. The Panthers have begun working RPO’s into their offense, but it’s still a rarity.
Surprisingly, Pitt is pretty good on passing downs. The success is because they run the ball more than almost anyone in the country in these situations. On third & long the offense craters. Pickett doesn’t get through his reads particularly quickly and takes a lot of sacks. Pitt bizarrely refuses to use the tight end in the passing game and doesn’t really make heavy use of their running backs there either.
Aston provides a check down option, but for the most part the passing game only targets the top three receivers. Maurice Ffrench is a speedster, Rafael Aurojo-Lopes is the possession option, and Taysir Mack provides another deep ball option. Only Mack is listed as taller than 6’0”, and none clear 200 lbs.
Clemson should be able to shut this offense down. The defensive line matches up well against a Pitt line missing its leader. Unlike some teams Clemson has struggled with Pitt runs one of the slowest offenses in the country. Coverage busts from run happy safeties could be a problem, but it’s hard to see Pitt exploiting that often enough to keep up. A passing game without contributions from the tight end and backs is going to struggle to take advantage of the Tigers linebackers. Misdirection doesn’t always work as well against fast teams, particularly ones that pursue as well as Clemson. Seriously, watch Wilkins motor. It’s hard to see Pitt scoring without a series of big plays from Clemson errors and some turnovers. Even then they probably need a special teams score. Stranger things have happened, but the Tigers are comfortable favorites for a reason.