It has been a strange few weeks in Tigertown. First, an undermanned Clemson lost against a fellow Top-Five opponent in South Bend. Then, after a bye week spent recuperating, a game against FSU was cancelled last minute. We’ve been in the news more for the comments of our head coach than for winning football games lately, and regardless of how you get there that is never ideal.
The Pittsburgh Panthers offer an opportunity to get things back on track. While Pat Narduzzi has brought stability to the program, he just hasn’t been able to raise the ceiling much above eight or nine wins. He doesn’t have his program operating at their ceiling this year either.
Pittsburgh has never been able to develop a balanced identity on offense under Narduzzi. A few years ago the program produced a pair of thousand yard runners while throwing the ball like a triple option team.
Coordinator Mark Whipple, a passing game expert with experience at both the NFL and collegiate level, was brought in to fix things. It appears to have been an overcorrection, leaving the Panthers an offense featuring an NFL quarterback and an FCS running game. To be frank, this is not exactly an astonishing result from a Mark Whipple offense.
Josh Walfish, a journalist who covered Whipple as a head coach at UMass saw it coming from the start, saying his hire
“surprises me in the sense that I was unsure if a Power Five program would go after him this off-season... I wasn’t sure that a Power Five school would go after him and his old-school spread offensive approach”.
Walfish went on to say,
“There’ll be a lot of moments where Pitt fans are going to be angry at Mark Whipple for not running the ball more. Late this past season, he was talking about how he really needed to find a way to be more balanced on offense and even after that he passed the ball a lot and didn’t find a way to establish the running game a whole lot”.
The Pittsburgh Panthers run game averages under three yards per carry, with lead running back Vincent Davis getting just 3.2 yards per rush. Davis has the vision and acceleration to do damage in Pitt’s zone-heavy running game when he gets a crease, and he isn’t as bad as he has looked this year.
But Davis also is listed generously at 5’8”, 175 lbs. It’s a lot to ask a running back that would be undersized on a high school field to consistently break tackles. When the blocking isn’t there, and it often isn’t, he’s getting annihilated in the backfield.
Attempts to use Pickett’s speed to mitigate this have been hit or miss. Here Pickett just pitches too quickly on a speed option and doesn’t force #44 to commit.
Here, Pickett and Davis run bash with counter blocking, but a lack of perimeter blocking and the defender in the flat completely ignoring the bubble screen get Davis stopped in the backfield.
Pickett is a genuinely dangerous runner, second on the team in touchdowns, but he does most of his work when the defense isn’t expecting it. He’s much better taking advantage of defenses that don’t respect his legs than he is as a primary option.
The end result is a running game that is hit or miss on the good days, and is erased by elite fronts. This takes the ball out of the hands of the Panthers backs nearly completely, making their main contribution in Whipple’s passing game as blockers.
The passing game is genuinely dangerous. Pickett has NFL potential as a passer, and is significantly better at using his legs to evade pressure than he is at running the ball. Once or twice a game he will dodge pressure and fabricate offense out of nothing.
Whipple has long been good at finding his best 2-3 receivers and running the offense through them. This year that means things flow through Jordan Addison (#3) and DJ Turner (#7). The duo have accounted for over 55% of Pickett’s total yardage.
Whipple is capable of scheming his receivers open. This is about as well as a concept designed to beat man coverage can go. Once the receivers have the ball in their hands they’re dangerous in the open field. But no one on the roster can reliably make contested catches and it hamstrings the entire operation.
You can see the outlines of an NFL passing game in Pittsburgh. Here, for example, is Pickett running a staple Peyton Manning play. The concept to the trips side is known as “levels” and has long been a favored way of attacking zone coverage. Where this play fails isn’t design, getting your receiver a one on one shot on the slant route is a shot worth taking, it’s execution.
A similar thing happened against Notre Dame, a game where Pitt managed just three points. An at best hit-or-miss running game starts missing consistently, and suddenly Pittsburgh is forced into third-and-long situations. Occasionally, Pickett is good enough to work his way out of those.
But it’s hard to make a living once your offense devolves to crossing routes and low-percentage shots to the sideline. Pickett’s numbers have been helped some by weak competition. Boston College and NC St. were both able to hold him under a 55% completion rate.
Clemson will be able to stop the run against Pittsburgh. From there, Venables will be free to either send exotic pressure packages or drop eight defenders on third-and-long situations. Pickett is good, but he isn’t good enough to keep up with one of the better offenses in the country single-handedly. If this game happens, Clemson’s defense should be able to leave the field with an impressive performance.