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How will 2017 Pitt football follow up on beating Penn State and Clemson?

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The Panthers are progressing nicely, but this season is probably a bump in the road.

Duke v Pittsburgh Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In my North Carolina preview, I mentioned how Larry Fedora had the unstable program achieving at a strangely normal rate. The Tar Heels are now recruiting and playing at a top-30 level. They cannot be called underachievers.

Narduzzi has pulled off a similar feat.

It felt like I was bringing it up in the Pitt preview every year just to twist the knife: the Panthers had, over the course of two decades, experienced brutal close-game luck.

Since Johnny Majors retired and Walt Harris took over, Pitt has had a winning record in one-possession games just five times and has been at least two games under .500 in such games nine times. In this nearly two-decade sample, the Panthers are 35-53 in these contests, a 0.397 win percentage.

The Panthers have managed to attend 13 bowls and share two conference titles in these 18 years. If these demons that have taken over Heinz Field ever relinquish their powers, Pitt could easily become an annual ACC Coastal contender.

I wrote in 2015 that bringing in a guy who helped kill the “Sparty, No!” meme was a deft one.

Baggage: shed. Sort of. Narduzzi is still struggling to get his classes balanced and takes on a massive rebuild of the two-deep, but not only have his Panthers reminded everyone of the program’s upside, they’ve finally won their share of close games.

Pitt is 7-7 in one-possession finishes over the last two years. For this program, that feels like 14-0. Last year they beat two Power 5 champions — Penn State early and national champ Clemson in November — by a combined four points. They were two of the most exciting, symbolic Pitt wins of the last decade. They survived shootouts with Georgia Tech (37-34) and Syracuse (76-61) and finished 20th in S&P+, their best finish in seven years. They fielded maybe their best offense since Dan Marino was quarterback. They took on a brutal schedule, one featuring six S&P+ top-25 teams, and landed punches.

There were still regrets, though.

  • There was the 45-38 loss to Oklahoma State, which could have been a win with one fewer deep-ball breakdown.
  • There was the 37-36 loss at UNC, in which the Tar Heels scored the winning touchdown with two seconds left.
  • There was the 39-36 loss to Virginia Tech, which could have flipped if the Panthers had managed a minus-2 turnover margin instead of minus-3.
  • There was the 31-24 bowl loss to Northwestern, which could have flipped had the Panthers held NU’s Justin Jackson to 150 rushing yards or so instead of 224.

2016 was huge. But the Panthers still left wins on the board, and despite the top-20 S&P+ finish, they ended 8-5. The demons aren’t vanquished just yet, and last year’s pangs might feel a little stronger as Narduzzi attempts a third-year rebuild.

Pitt has to replace star running back James Conner, quarterback Nathan Peterman, tight end Scott Orndoff, All-American guard Dorian Johnson, all-conference tackle Adam Bisnowaty, four of five defensive linemen (including Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto), three of four linebackers, and three of five defensive backs. Plus, Canada leaves Watson with nearly impossible expectations.

The Panthers are not without star power; dynamic rusher/receiver Henderson is back, as are leading receiver Jester Weah, cornerback Avonte Maddox, and, of course, 2016 Piesman Trophy winner Brian O’Neill. And if some high-profile transfers find niches, Pitt will have more than enough talent to challenge good teams.

Still, it’s going to be nearly impossible to match last year’s upside, and Pitt’s success might end up defining how we look back at 2016. Was it the year a corner was turned, or was it a year of dramatic upside and too many missed opportunities?

From a symbolism standpoint, you could do worse than this:

  • Narduzzi is 16-10 after two years, ranked 20th in S&P+ in his second year. He faces a third-year setback.
  • Mentor Mark Dantonio at Michigan State: 16-10 in his first two years, 23rd in S&P+ in year two, and 6-7 in year three.
  • Beginning in year four, Dantonio went 65-16 over his next six seasons.

So there’s that.


2016 in review

2016 Pitt statistical profile.

The offense was not only good; it got better against better teams. Unfortunately, the defense was demonstrably worse.

  • Pitt vs. S&P+ top 50 (3-5): Avg. percentile performance: 68% (80% offense, 36% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.6, Pitt 6.5 | Avg. score: Opp 40, Pitt 36
  • Pitt vs. everyone else (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 78% (60% offense, 54% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Pitt 7.0, Opp 4.9 | Avg. score: Pitt 50, Opp 28

Against top-50 competition, the offense averaged just 0.4 yards per play fewer than it did against lesser squads, but the defense allowed 1.7 yards per play more. As a result, Pitt games were virtually guaranteed shootouts; only the first and last games of the season finished with fewer than 70 combined points. Not what one would expect from either Pitt or a Narduzzi team.


Offense

Pitt offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The most encouraging thing I can say about Watson is that Canada hadn’t proved himself before coming to town either. In nine seasons as a coordinator, Canada had never fielded an Off. S&P+ top 20 offense, and his average finish was 51.9. His first Pitt surged from 46th to fourth.

Watson’s track record hasn’t been sterling either. Including his time at Texas — even though he was technically QBs coach and associate head coach, he was at worst a co-coordinator in Charlie Strong’s strange arrangement — he has spent 15 years as an OC with an average Off. S&P+ ranking of 45.7. Since ranking in the top 10 in 2007-08 at Nebraska, that average has ballooned to 64.9. At Louisville, with Teddy Bridgewater at QB, he peaked at 47th in 2013.

Narduzzi and Watson worked together at Miami (Ohio) 25 years ago, and apparently the bond was a good one.

For his struggles as an OC, Watson is still regarded as a good quarterbacks coach. In Peterman’s absence, the Panthers turn to either USC grad transfer Max Browne or sophomore Ben DiNucci. Whereas Peterman averaged 15.4 yards per completion in last year’s explosive offense, Browne and DiNucci combined to average just 8.6. And creating explosiveness will be a key now that Conner, a wonderful grinder in the backfield, is gone.

Syracuse v Pittsburgh
Quadree Henderson
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Then again, you don’t have to throw deep to Henderson for him to end up going deep. The 5’8 junior was one of the most thrilling players in the country, gaining 631 rushing yards in just 60 carries. One in five carries went for at least 20 yards, and while he lined up all over the field (he was also targeted with 42 passes), it appears he will begin as Pitt’s No. 1 receiver.

That leaves relative unknowns at running back, but there’s size and upside. Sophomore Chawntez Moss (5’11, 210) and juniors Darrin Hall (5’11, 220) and Qadree Ollison (6’2, 230) combined for 111 carries and 514 yards in 2016. That’s an average of just 4.6 yards per carry, 0.5 below Conner’s pace, but while Conner was far more explosive, this trio was actually more efficient. Plus, two incoming freshmen — Todd Sibley Jr. (5’9, 215) and A.J. Davis (6’0, 205) — are four-star prospects per the 247Sports Composite.

There’s quite a bit of potential in the backfield, and there’s even more up front. Losing Johnson and Bisnowaty hurts, but Piesman-winner O’Neill was a third-team all-conference selection, guards Alex Officer and Alex Bookser have combined for 51 career starts, and size won’t be a problem: The 10 players on the OL two-deep average 6’5, 319. Combined with the bigger backs, that’s quite a bit of meat.

Georgia Tech v Pittsburgh
Brian O'Neill
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The receiving corps could be a thrill as long as Weah and Henderson don’t get hurt.

Weah’s return gives the Panthers one sure big-play threat. He was one of the nation’s most underrated receivers, combining a 24.2 yards-per-catch average with a 51 percent success rate. He caught fewer than three passes per game but still nearly finished with 900 receiving yards. Henderson was a nice possession option near the line of scrimmage. The tight end position, meanwhile, has quite a bit of potential as well between four-star sophomore Chris Clark, senior Devon Edwards, Rutgers transfer Matt Flanagan, and incoming four-star Charles Reeves Jr.

Size isn’t an issue here either. Weah is 6’3, backup sophomore Aaron Mathews 6’4, and Reeves is listed at a whopping 6’5, 280.

A single injury could be devastating, though. After Weah and Henderson, Mathews, sophomore Maurice Ffrench, and junior Rafael Araujo-Lopes combined for just nine catches last year.

Defense

Pitt defensive radar

The offense has potential, but there’s almost nowhere to go but down. That means the defense will have to pick up the slack. Easier said than done.

A Narduzzi defense is nothing if not aggressive. He is willing to give up big plays in the name of making some. He wants to force college players to make plays college players typically can’t, and that’s great as long as he has the personnel. But his first two Pitt defenses ranked just 50th and 62nd in Def. S&P+. Last year’s Panthers made plays up front but gave up too many big plays; meanwhile, the pass defense was strangely conservative (and still gave up too many big plays).

Pitt allowed 213 gains of 10-plus yards (120th in FBS) and 24 of 40-plus (121st). And that was with Price and Soto up front. That duo combined for 33 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks, and of the nine players to record at least 4.5 TFLs last season, six are gone.

NCAA Football: Marshall at Pittsburgh
Rori Blair
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The end position still has plenty of potential. Rori Blair and Allen Edwards combined for seven TFLs as complementary pieces, and four-star Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix had a good enough spring to be listed as a starter. But there’s a massive void at DT, where the three leading tacklers are gone.

Shane Roy and Amir Watts combined for six tackles, and that’s the extent of your experience in the middle. Big things are expected of four-star redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp, but he’s still a redshirt freshman. There’s still plenty of size here, thanks to players like junior Mike Herndon (6’4, 315) and incoming freshman Jalen Twyman (6’2, 315), but there are no proven pieces.

There aren’t many at linebacker either; junior Oluwaseun Idowu is the only of last year’s top four tacklers to return, though senior Quintin Wirginis and sophomore Saleem Brightwell showed some potential in backup roles.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh
Avonte Maddox
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, opponents had to be wary of the run defense and took to the air. They ran just 49 percent of the time on standard downs (123rd in FBS) and 24 percent on passing downs (126th), a sign that there wasn’t much fear of the secondary. Maddox took advantage of the extra attention, combining for 8.5 TFLs and 11 passes defensed, but opponents still completed 64 percent of their passes with a 143.6 passer rating. Pitt basically turned every quarterback into Washington State’s Luke Falk (145.6).

Opposite Maddox will be some combination of sophomores Dane Jackson, Damar Hamlin, and Malik Henderson, junior Phillipie Motley, and redshirt freshman Therran Coleman. Blue-chip freshman Paris Ford could help, but he needs to secure his eligibility first.

Safety was less of an issue last year, but it remains unsure. Free safety Jordan Whitehead returns, and junior Dennis Briggs had 2.5 TFLs and a breakup and might be a play-maker. But once again, if someone gets hurt, there’s almost nothing proven after them.


Special Teams

Chris Blewitt made the biggest field goal of his life against Clemson but still left something to be desired from a consistency standpoint. Pitt ranked just 85th in field goal efficiency, and while punter Ryan Winslow’s leg was strong (42.6 average), the Panthers ranked just 103rd in punt efficiency because of an eight-yard return average.

When you grade poorly in those, you’re going to grade poorly in Special Teams S&P+. Pitt ranked 81st, losing about 0.4 points per game, despite Henderson’s superhuman averages (30.5 yards per kick return, 15.8 yards per punt return, four combined touchdowns). Winslow is back, but Blewitt is replaceable, and Pitt isn’t likely to fall further here.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Youngstown State NR 25.0 93%
9-Sep at Penn State 8 -16.0 18%
16-Sep Oklahoma State 22 -2.4 44%
23-Sep at Georgia Tech 31 -3.3 42%
30-Sep Rice 120 24.6 92%
7-Oct at Syracuse 60 2.3 55%
14-Oct N.C. State 27 0.9 52%
21-Oct at Duke 65 2.9 57%
28-Oct Virginia 70 10.7 73%
9-Nov North Carolina 38 3.8 59%
18-Nov at Virginia Tech 25 -5.7 37%
24-Nov Miami 18 -3.2 43%
Projected S&P+ Rk 33
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 13 / 78
Projected wins 6.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.8 (35)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 33 / 41
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -0.4
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 44% (44%, 44%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.2 (-0.2)

Ten years ago, Pitt pulled one of its biggest upsets ever, when a team that had lost seven of its last nine games went to Morgantown and took down No. 2 West Virginia, 13-9.

It was the biggest possible rivalry move — we can’t make anything of our season, but we’re going to destroy yours — and it was a springboard. Pitt went 19-7 over the next two seasons, their best two-year win total since 1981-82.

It’s hard to imagine that happening again following last year’s PSU and Clemson wins. The Panthers just have too much to replace. And that’s fine — sometimes it takes a while to get your classes balanced, and Narduzzi’s mentor experienced a third-year blip before he got rolling at Michigan State.

But as with UNC, newfound normalcy will be tested by a 2017 blip. If Pitt manages a top-40 performance and wins seven or eight games, that could set up a nice run in 2018 and beyond. This team doesn’t have many seniors, after all.

In the increasingly talented ACC, a top-40 performance could take on a lot of looks in the win column. S&P+ projects Pitt 33rd, which means three likely wins (Youngstown State, Rice, Virginia), one likely loss (at Penn State), and a whopping eight relative tossups with win probability between 37 and 59 percent. Pitt has played 14 one-possession games in two years; unless the Panthers fall further than expected, that average probably won’t go down.

That means 4-8 and 10-2 are technically on the table, depending on the bounces that eluded the Panthers for so many years.

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