Pitt makes the grade in several areas, but with plenty of room for improvement
While Pitt rested weary and, in many cases, injured muscles, the ACC Coastal turned into a free-for-all.
After Miami defeated Virginia on Friday night, every team in the division has at least one loss. The bad news: By Sunday afternoon, the Coastal might not have a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. No. 20 Virginia is sure to fall, and Pitt (4-2, 1-1) received no love last week from 60 of the 62 voters.
Almost anyone can win it, including and especially Pitt (if it fixes that running game). No one is a sure bet to run away with the championship, and many games will be like Pitt’s most recent three victories that were decided by a total of seven points.
Since Pat Narduzzi became Pitt’s coach in 2015, the Panthers have played 15 of 58 games that ended with a margin of a field goal or less. He was 5-7 in such games before winning three in row.
Pitt has six remaining, starting at Syracuse on Friday night. Here’s how the first half went (with grades). If you think the second half will follow the same script, you probably will be wrong.
Kenny Pickett gets high marks for directing two fourth-quarter drives against Central Florida and Duke that led to deciding touchdowns with 59 and 38 seconds left. In total, he was 7 of 10 for 109 yards, rushed for 13 and caught the deciding pass against UCF.
But he is ahead of last season’s interception pace, throwing four after finishing 2018 with only six.
Redshirt freshman Nick Patti gets partial credit for this grade, saving Pitt from an embarrassing loss to Delaware with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
Running backs: C
Pickett is throwing more passes, in part because the running game hasn’t found much traction.
Todd Sibley has the only 100-yard game (106 against Delaware), and top two backs A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis have missed the past two games with injuries. One or both might be ready for Syracuse.
After six games, Pitt was 13th in the 14-team ACC in rushing yards per game (116.5).
Blame it on inexperience, but when Narduzzi and running backs coach Andre Powell break down the game film, they’re not interested in excuses, only remedies.
A solid running game over the final six games significantly increases Pitt’s chances of winning the Coastal. More of the same will lead to disappointment.
Wide receivers/tight ends: A
Grading this group was easy.
Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench are the most prolific pass-catching duo in the nation, with 91 receptions for 907 yards.
It will be interesting to see how close to 2,000 they can get.
Meanwhile, the loss of Tre Tipton to a knee injury hurts the depth, but Aaron Mathews is averaging 14.1 yards (better than Ffrench and Mack) on eight catches.
Tight ends Nakia Griffin- Stewart and Will Gragg have 21 combined catches for 163 yards and a touchdown (more than double what three tight ends accumulated in 14 games last year).
Offensive line: C
After six games, throw away that inexperience excuse. Four of the five linemen have played almost every snap since early August. With practice, meetings and games, they are consumed by football and are no longer “puppies” (Narduzzi’s favorite word for young players).
Much of the problems in the run game can be traced to blocking, but center Jimmy Morrissey is playing at an All-ACC level while providing a firm hand as a leader.
Pass protection has been OK — better than a year ago, which is impressive considering how often the quarterbacks drop back to pass. Opponents have recorded 12 sacks after Pitt allowed 33 last season.
Line coach Dave Borbely made his first personnel move during the Duke game when he swapped out former WPIAL linemen at right guard, inserting redshirt freshman Jake Kradel (Butler) for Gabe Houy (Upper St. Clair).
Kradel, who grew up a Pitt fan, said he wasn’t discouraged by his lack of playing time and kept himself ready to play.
“I can’t let the team down,” he said. “The first play I was a little nervous. The second play was like I was playing football again, like I was in Little League again.”
Defensive line: A
Assistant coach Charlie Partridge has his unit playing at a high level, claiming 19 of Pitt’s 27 sacks, which was tops in the ACC before this weekend.
“They can’t block us all,” said defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, who has six sacks and is one of five linemen with at least 1½. “There are too many of us.”
Pitt also was fourth in the conference at stopping the run (97 yards per game).
Partridge said this group is making him a better coach.
“In your career, you run across a couple people that make you better as a coach,” he said, “that challenge you as a coach, that bring up things and make you really investigate portions of what you’re teaching.”
He declined to name names, but he said, “I got a couple guys in the room that are that.”
He also said he had to change his late-night work schedule because several players are sitting in his office at 6 a.m., with their breakfast, ready to work.
Twyman told a story the other day that illustrates how quickly graduate transfer linebacker Kylan Johnson has adapted to his new surroundings.
“He walks up to me in practice,” Twyman said, “and I’m on a knee. “He says, ‘How many TFLs you got?’
“I don’t even know.”
“We’re tied, so you better pick it up.”
Johnson and Twyman share the team lead with seven each.
On the other side, Phil Campbell III and Cam Bright bring a defensive back’s speed to the position while sharing snaps.
Senior Saleem Brightwell has stepped into the middle while Elias Reynolds recovers from an injury. When Reynolds and Chase Pine return, linebacker coach Rob Harley will have the depth he demands.
Defensive backs: B
The only piece missing from last year’s secondary was strong safety Paris Ford, whose two interceptions helped Pitt claim a big first-half lead at Duke.
The others are veterans: Damar Hamlin, Dane Jackson, Jason Pinnock, Damarri Mathis, Bricen Garner, Jazzee Stocker and Therran Coleman.
One nit-pick: Pitt has played four games without an interception, picking off five passes in two games (UCF and Duke).
Special teams: C
Pitt wouldn’t have defeated UCF without Mathews’ blocked punt and Wendell Davis’ subsequent return for a touchdown. But UCF’s Otis Anderson returned a punt 87 yards for a score in that game.
Perhaps only defensive coaches appreciate this stat: Kirk Christodoulou is second in the ACC at dropping punts inside the 20-yard line (15).
Pitt’s return game has been lacking, sitting last in the ACC in kickoff returns (17.4 yards) and 11th in punt returns (6.8).
Meanwhile, Narduzzi continues to trust kicker Alex Kessman, who has missed half of his field-goal attempts (6 of 12) and one extra point.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .