The Clemson Tigers (7-1, 6-1 in ACC) are set (at least for now) to finally get back to action Saturday at home against the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-4, 4-4 in ACC). While still dealing with some injuries to key players, the Tigers are starting to get healthier, and hope to wash the bad taste of a rare loss out of their mouths. As it happens, Pitt was the last team to beat Clemson in Death Valley, back in 2016, so the Tigers will be looking to quell a repeat of that.
Mike Wilson from Cardiac Hill, SB Nation’s Pitt site, was kind enough to answer some questions for us as we look ahead to Saturday’s game.
Tom: Expectations for Pittsburgh football were somewhat high this season, at least among some pundits. The 2020 season, which of course is unlike any other for all teams, has been particularly tumultuous for the Panthers, as they won their first three games, lost their next four, and have now won their last two. Overall, how has their performance aligned with your expectations, and what contextual factors should we be aware of as well? (E.g., COVID-19 absences, injuries, etc.)
Mike: With its original schedule, Pitt had a path to nine wins if the team played to its potential and was consistent. But when the ACC limited out-of-conference games; removed Pitt’s Virginia and North Carolina games; and added Clemson, Boston College and NC State to Pitt’s schedule—all teams Pitt has struggled against—my presumption was that Pitt would win five or six games. The team has played pretty much in line with my expectations, with the only bump in the road being Kenny Pickett’s midseason ankle injury. Had he been healthy for the Miami game, Pitt might have had a chance at another win. But I think any preseason hype around Pitt once its schedule was finalized was just a failure to recognize how problematic the new matchups were going to be.
Tom: Pat Narduzzi has always struck me as, for lack of a better word, a somewhat weak coach (sorry if that sounds harsh). Of course, that perception is largely based on my amplification of his absurd decision to kick a field goal from the one-yard line while down seven points late in a game against Penn State last year. I thought it served him right that his team didn’t even make the kick. Anyway, with Narduzzi having been at the helm since 2015, how do you feel about his tenure overall? From an outside perspective, it seems like Pitt is still mired in mediocrity, with the occasional highlight like that one game in 2016 that I won’t mention further. In your mind, does Narduzzi need to prove something more in order to stick around for the long haul?
Mike: I wouldn’t call Pat Narduzzi’s tenure a success, but it has had a few memorable high points and has been an improvement on the Paul Chryst years. It has also stabilized the program for the first time since the Dave Wannstedt era, so there’s value in that. And recruiting has reached a higher level over the last year or two, so that is another factor buying him some time. All told, despite Narduzzi’s head-scratching calls and stubborn nature, the overall health of the program seems better than it was before him. And with that said, which coaches could Pitt feasibly hire that would be an improvement on him? It’s not that better coaches don’t exist, but I don’t think Pitt is confident better coaches are out there who are willing to commit to Pitt long enough to build something. Narduzzi has proved his loyalty to Pitt by not going after the Michigan State job when that opened up, and I think that’s important to Pitt. And while he hasn’t broken through to the next level with a 10-win season or a spot in the playoff, he has only had one losing season in six years. Pitt had three in four years before he arrived. So I think Narduzzi has less to prove than it seems.
Tom: The last time these two teams met, in the ACC championship game in 2018 (man, the ACC Coastal was bad that year), Pitt’s offense was predicated on the run, and very limited in the passing game. That manifested in a young Kenny Pickett throwing for a total of EIGHT (8) yards on FOUR (4) completions. Nowadays though, Pickett and the Panthers rely much more heavily on the passing game. The senior QB’s 2,003 passing yards are good for fifth in the ACC. Where has Pickett improved the most over the last couple of years?
Mike: Kenny Pickett has improved pretty much every facet of his game. He’s more accurate, more efficient, and makes better decisions. He has also limited his mistakes and turnovers significantly this season. What is most surprising about that is that his accuracy has improved despite ongoing issues with drops in the Pitt receiving corps. So his stats should actually look better than they do, and this season, that’s saying something.
Tom: Now looking to Saturday’s game: When Pittsburgh has the ball, we know Pickett will look to sling it, but what else, specifically, should we expect to see, both from a schematic standpoint and with respect to other playmakers? What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of Pitt’s offense?
Mike: The Panthers’ general game plan is to throw, throw, throw until they reach the goal line. Then Kenny Pickett or Vincent Davis hammers it in. You can also expect some dinks and dunks and some ill-advised attempts to get the running game going with Vincent Davis. For context, Davis is 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, and averages 3.3 yards per carry. He’s not big enough to break through the line and get much going, but offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will insist on giving him the ball regardless of the results. Aside from Pickett, who is the catalyst of the Pitt offense, some offensive strengths are interior linemen Jimmy Morrissey and Bryce Hargrove. They both play at an All-ACC level and let little to no pressure get to Pickett. The top playmakers are slot receivers Jordan Addison and D.J. Turner. Addison chips away at teams all day, and Turner comes up with big chunks of yardage if he’s having a good day. However, the line is weak at the edges, and Pitt’s other receivers drop the ball consistently. So neither position group as a whole is a strength. And the Pitt running game has been weak for the last two seasons, although Vincent Davis and A.J. Davis played well against Virginia Tech.
Tom: On the other side of the ball, what should we expect to see schematically with Pitt’s defense? Similarly, what are the defense’s biggest strengths and weaknesses, and who should we keep an eye on?
Mike: Since Clemson’s passing game has been more successful than its running game this season, I imagine Pitt will play to its own strengths and try to get to Trevor Lawrence early and often. Pitt’s greatest attribute is its defensive line, particularly Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver. If they have success in disrupting Lawrence, that will be a great sign for Pitt. But an even better sign would be the secondary stepping up like it did against Florida State. Generally, the Pitt secondary has been the glaring weakness of the defense, but it has looked better over the last two weeks and had four interceptions in that span.
Tom: As of this writing, Clemson enters Saturday’s game as 25-point favorites. While a very big spread, it’s actually lower than what the Tigers see for most ACC opponents. What are some areas/matchups where you think the Panthers can give the Tigers some trouble and make things interesting?
Mike: Obviously, much will hinge on how effective the Pitt defensive line is in disrupting Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson passing game. If Pitt gets to him a lot, that could stifle the offense and maybe open the door for Pitt to get something going. With regard to the Pitt offense, I expect Kenny Pickett to extend some drives and find the end zone with his athleticism and mobility. That’s something that wasn’t really part of his skillset the last time Pitt met Clemson, and it could make a difference this time around. He won’t rack up a ton of yards, but he can come up with big plays and frustrate defenses. If he can do that on Saturday, it could be the difference between a blowout and a competitive game.
A big thank-you to Mike for taking some time to share some insights on Pitt, especially during Thanksgiving week. You can give him a Twitter follow here, and also check out Cardiac Hill to get fully up to date on all things Pitt.