Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple still seeking ‘complete game’ from his unit
When Mark Whipple looks at the progress Pitt’s offense has made since spring drills, he allows himself one moment to smile.
Then, it’s back to work.
Pitt’s passing game is better by a large margin, and his insistence on emphasizing it and his hands-on work with quarterback Kenny Pickett is a big reason. Pitt was 120th in the nation last season in passing yards per game (141.8), and now it is 36th (270.3).
But the ground game — a part of the offense where coach Pat Narduzzi won’t settle for less — has fallen off. After finishing 18th in the FBS last season (227.9), Pitt is 109th (120.6).
On the scoreboard, it’s nice to build big leads, but you don’t expect to end up winning those games by a field goal and a touchdown.
“We’re all right,” Whipple said. “At times, we played pretty good.
“We dropped some balls. I’m probably putting too much on their plate, but I’m trying to challenge them and I think they’re handling it better.
“We just haven’t come close to playing a complete game.”
Asked about the second-half slumps at Duke and Syracuse, he shouldered some of the blame as the play-caller.
“We’ve been a little more conservative probably,” he said. “If you don’t make mistakes, which we did at Duke, it’s hard to drive it on our (defense).
“You’re up 26-3. You’re up 24-6 as a play-caller, you’re not saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to slow it down,’ but we kinda do and I probably have to do a better job of that.”
Whipple said improving on third down — Pitt was 6 of 18 at Duke — would help.
“We don’t want to bring the punt team in,” he said. “That’s a four-letter word.”
But he sees better days ahead, with previously injured players A.J. Davis and Shockey Jacques-Louis back on the field. Davis ran for 103 yards at Syracuse, and Jacques-Louis gained 86 yards on nine recent touches. Whipple called Jacques-Louis “the fastest receiver we have.”
At the game’s most important position, Whipple sees confidence, leadership and increased ability to read defenses from Pickett, who found five different receivers during the game-winning touchdown drive at Duke.
“He looks at all his reads, he throws on point, pretty much,” Jacques-Louis said.
Pitt has established its identity as a passing team, ranking fifth in the nation in attempts (298) and 10th — first in the ACC — in completions (180).
“When he pulled (the offense) out and was showing me,” Jacques-Louis said, “I knew it was going to be something special. If I was a recruit looking right now, this would be the perfect spot for me, (with) all the passes going around.”
But impressing recruits is only part of what Pitt tries to accomplish. Nothing is more impressive than stacking victories one after another. Pitt (5-2, 2-1) has been able to win close games, but it needs to keep winning to stay alive in the ACC Coastal title chase.
Whipple is confident the offense will improve over the final five games.
“You worry about the Xs and Os, but there are some other things situationally that I think we’ve gotten better at as the year’s gone on,” he said.
He’s proud, for example, that the team committed a total of only three false start penalties in two loud venues (Penn State and Syracuse). Also, the four-minute offense Pitt uses to end games with a lead has improved dramatically since the spring, he said.
“We got a young group up front, getting better,” he said. “We ran the ball when we wanted to at times (at Syracuse).
“They’re understanding spacing. They’re understanding timing better,” he said of the pass catchers, “but we’re a long ways away. If we keep moving at this rate, we have a chance to have a memorable season.
“We’d like to get better in the passing game, like to get better in the running game. We want to score more touchdowns. But the bottom line is this group, they find a way to win.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .