Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: The state of things, the defense, expectations and more
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The 3-2-1 Column: The state of things, the defense, expectations and more

In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re using the off week to reset as Pitt prepares for its final four games of the season. So we’re thinking about where the Panthers go from here, the defense, the recruiting class, injuries and realistic expectations for Pitt football.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

The state of things
There’s a saying that Pitt veteran Bob Junko is fond of using, whether he’s talking to high school players, fifth-year college seniors or coaches like himself:

Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low. Just keep sawing that wood.

I’m no Bob Junko, so I can’t do the quote justice. Similarly, I’m no Bob Junko, so I can’t say that I always live by that rule. When things are rolling, it looks like they’ll never slip. And when things aren’t good, it seems like they’ll never look up.

Like my fantasy football team: four weeks ago, my juggernaut set a single-game scoring record in a league that has been around for 15 years. It was awesome, and I was sure that my loaded roster of Dak Prescott and Dalvin Cook and Odell Beckham and Amari Cooper would be unstoppable.

This week, I had the lowest score in the league, and I don’t know if I’ll ever win another game.

I got too high. Now I’m probably too low. But when you are getting your brains beat in, it’s hard to imagine any other outcome. Right now, Pitt is firmly in the category of getting its brains beat in, and I’ll admit it: for as balanced and level and the-glass-is-right-in-the-middle as I try to be, I know the feeling.

It feels like Pitt’s offense might never score another touchdown, and if the Panthers do find the end zone, it feels like they certainly won’t score enough to overcome all the big plays the defense will inevitably give up.

That’s a tough spell to break, especially when you’re in a losing streak. The last time Pitt won a game was Sept. 26. It’s been more than a month since then, and the Panthers don’t play again until Nov. 7, which means, at a minimum, Pitt will go at least 42 days between wins.

That’s a long time - six weeks, if my math checks out - and if you, as a fan, feel like the team hasn’t won in forever, imagine how the players are feeling right now. You might have sat in the stands last Saturday or at least watched from home, and you were likely not too cheery as that game unfolded, but imagine standing on the field or sidelines, watching as the points kept rolling up for Notre Dame and your own chances of winning the game, of breaking the losing streak, kept sinking.

So the top thing Pat Narduzzi has to do over this off week is communicate with his players. Make sure everyone on the team knows that the coaching staff is still committed to the team, the season, every single game and every single player. The players need to know that the coaches have not given up on the season, and the coaches need to do everything they can to rally the troops.

This is all clichéd; I know that, but it’s also true and real. This season is not going to shed the label of being a disappointment; that much is certain. But it doesn’t have to be a disaster, though, and that will depend on what happens in the final four games (really, the next three are the key).

Where Pitt goes from here
As far as those final four games…

Like I said, I know it feels like Pitt won’t win another game. And hey, if the defense keeps giving up big plays and the offense never gets into the red zone (or never scores touchdowns when it gets there), then yes, it will be tough to win any of the final four, let alone multiple games in that stretch.

But here’s where I’m at:

This team is not terrible. This team has good individual pieces at a lot of positions. Not all positions, mind you, and some of those spots are particularly weak. But there are enough talented players on this team to believe that another win or two or three is possible. Perhaps should even be expected.

What the next four games will come down to - I guess I should just say the next three games, right? Should we even include Clemson in the conversation at this point? - is whether or not Pitt can isolate its bad habits and not have too many of them pile up in the same game.

I wrote this in yesterday’s Mailbag when somebody asked me what single factor has been the biggest problem for the team. Admittedly, I gave a cop-out answer, but I believe it to be the truth that there hasn’t been one biggest problem (aside from possibly the offensive line); instead, this team has been doomed by the compounding of its flaws.

Against Syracuse and Louisville, the offense failed to be consistently effective, but the defense had things locked down so those games turned out to be wins. Last year against Duke and North Carolina, the defense gave up some big plays but the offense answered the call and scored.

There was a balance, and when one unit struggled, another picked up the slack.

Conversely, Pitt couldn’t find that balance in 2019’s losses to Miami, Virginia Tech or Boston College (Penn State, too), and that was the case this year against N.C. State, Boston College and Miami. Those teams made some big plays on Pitt’s defense while the Panthers’ offense struggled to get out of first gear.

That’s a recipe for failure, or worse. It all came to a head against Notre Dame, when everything that could go wrong in all three phases did go wrong in all three phases, but I think that game is something of an extreme, particularly when compared to Pitt’s matchups with Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

The Seminoles, Yellow Jackets and Hokies are a combined 6-9 in ACC games and 7-10 overall. Virginia Tech, at 3-2 (both overall and in the ACC), is the only one of those teams that has a winning record, and while Pitt doesn’t have a winning record either, it’s not like any of those three teams is a world-beater.

Florida State is 1-4 in conference games, offsetting a 31-28 upset win over North Carolina with losses to Georgia Tech, Miami, Notre Dame and, most recently, Louisville in a 48-16 rout (that would be the same Louisville team Pitt beat earlier this season). Georgia Tech has two conference wins - the season opener at FSU and a home game against Louisville - to go with losses to Syracuse, Clemson and Boston College. And Virginia Tech opened the season with wins over N.C. State and Duke before sandwiching losses to UNC and Wake Forest around a win over Boston College.

I don’t know, but when I compare those wins and losses, I don’t see any one of the three teams in question being particularly dominant at this point in the season.

That doesn’t mean Pitt will have an easy go of it. The Panthers haven’t had an easy go of anything against FBS competition since…I don’t know, maybe Wake Forest in 2018? And this season, Pitt has certainly had to fight for everything it has gotten (and failed to get).

But my point is this: FSU, GT and VT are all very much in the category of winnable games. I know, I know: N.C. State and Boston College and even Miami were winnable games, too, and just because a game is winnable doesn’t mean Pitt will actually win it. But the opportunities will be there.

Pitt can’t salvage the 2020 season. The die has been cast for disappointment. But the Panthers can prevent this year from being an outright disaster, and FSU, GT and VT will give them a chance to do so.

The recruiting class
I touched on this briefly in last week’s column, but I want to draw attention to it again because, quite frankly, Pitt fans are pretty miserable right now. So let’s talk about something positive.

The Panthers’ recruiting class of 2021 is a pretty big positive. It’s ranked inside the top 25 with a number of current commits who deserve - and will likely get - bumps in their individual rankings. Obviously not all of Pitt’s commits are playing this season; the trio of commits from Virginia, for instance, have been limited to just playing seven-on-seven this fall. But a bunch of future Panthers have been active, and there are a few I would like to highlight.

Like Stephon Hall. The Central Valley safety is one of the lesser-hyped recruits in Pitt’s class, particularly when we talk about the local guys, but that should change. Check out Hall’s senior highlights: there’s a lot to like. He’s a big safety who can get from one sideline to the other, tracks the ball-carrier well and definitely likes to lay a big hit.

Hall is underrated by Rivals.com right now as a two-star prospect. That has to come up.

Or how about Khalil Anderson? Some guys have highlight tape that jumps off the screen, and Anderson fits the bill right from the start. How many cornerbacks have highlight film that opens with three touchdowns? Anderson does, with a 99-yard pick-six, a 75-yard punt return and a 56-yard punt return. Then, after a brief detour for a really nice tackle, there’s another punt return touchdown.

The rest of Anderson’s film is full of the kind of plays that certainly excite the Pitt coaches. He’s a physical defensive back with closing speed.

And I’ll give you a sleeper in the class: DeMatha receiver Jaden Bradley. He’s one of those guys whose recruitment has taken an interesting path due to position changes, as he played quarterback throughout his career but moved to receiver for his junior season in high school.

Despite being pretty impressive physically, Bradley was a player in his first year at a new position working in an offense that has historically been run-heavy. So he went under the radar but expected to see his exposure grow as a senior.

Then the pandemic happened and Bradley’s senior season was canceled. That could work out in Pitt’s favor, because he’s going to stay under the radar - or off the radar altogether. He’ll be the Panthers’ biggest receiver from the time he steps on campus, and that size is something the receiving corps needs.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Is it feast or famine for the defense?
We have all spent a lot of time talking about Pitt’s offense, and understandably so. The Panthers have scored one touchdown in the last two games and just eight in the current four-game losing streak, so it’s inevitable that a lot of the focus will be there.

But the performance of Pitt’s defense has not gone unnoticed, and after giving up five offensive touchdowns against Notre Dame and four each against Miami, Boston College and N.C. State, there are some questions to raise about that side of the ball.

Perhaps the biggest question is this: Who are they? Who is Pitt’s defense in 2020? It’s a unit that has, in a very broad sense, underperformed. But it’s also a unit that has excelled in certain areas.

Like run defense: I know fans don’t want to give it any credit, but it’s still important to stop the run, and Pitt’s defense has been really good in that department. The Panthers are getting to the quarterback, too: they lead the nation in total sacks and have 157 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. That’s an average of more than 20 pressures per game, which is a really impressive number.

It’s not the only eye-opening number, though. The other one - the one that is causing the most concern - is explosive plays. In the last four games, Pitt’s opponents have scored 10 touchdowns on plays of 20 yards or more.

N.C. State hit touchdown passes of 35 and 25 yards. Boston College had scores of 44, 77 and 25. Miami went in from 35, 38 and 45. And Notre Dame scored from 34 and 73 yards out.

That’s 431 yards on those 10 plays alone, or 35% of the 1,235 total passing yards those four teams amassed against Pitt.

At the same time, the Panthers have 14 sacks in those games, so it really might be the question we started with: Is it feast or famine for Pitt’s defense? Are opponent drop-backs either going for sacks or touchdowns, with little in between?

It’s not quite that extreme. Devin Leary, Phil Jurkovec, D’Eriq King and Ian Book dropped back a combined total of 164 times against Pitt. 14 of those drop-backs went for sacks and 10 went for touchdowns or 20 yards or more. That’s only 24 of the 164 drop-backs, of 14.6%, that produced those extreme results. Then again, another way of looking at it is, those four quarterbacks were either sacked or threw a long touchdown pass on one out of every 11 drop-backs.

I guess the bigger question, ultimately, is why things are so extreme. It’s really a combination of personnel, scheme, execution and, a few times, simply a matter of the opponent making a play. Some of those things are correctable and some are not. But for this team, with an offense that can’t be relied on to score 20 and has topped 30 against Power Five competition just twice since the start of last season, the big plays absolutely have to be curtailed. The Panthers have to keep getting pressure on the quarterback, but they also have to find some answers on the back end of the defense.

How much have injuries played into this situation?
Okay, I’ll say right from the start that I am well aware of the fact that no one wants to hear excuses. I don’t think Pitt fans would accept anything short of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man stomping through Oakland as an excuse for the season that has been so far, and even that would be a tough sell because, as you might have heard, Pitt doesn’t play in Oakland.

So I’m not going to make excuses. No excuses due to COVID-19, no excuses due to the change in the schedule and no excuses due to injuries.

But we should at least talk about injuries, because this team has suffered from some injuries and they have been fairly significant.

It started before the season, as you know, when senior cornerback Damarri Mathis suffered a non-football injury and was lost for the year. Then senior tight end Lucas Krull missed the opener due to injury, played in the second game and hasn’t appeared since.

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Wendell Davis started the first two games and hasn’t played in the last five. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Keyshon Camp made it to the third game but got hurt on the first series of that one. Top reserve defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado got hurt in the opener and has missed six games. Redshirt junior linebacker Cam Bright was a limited participant in the N.C. State, Boston College and Miami games.

Oh, and starting quarterback Kenny Pickett has missed two games and counting. That seems significant, especially considering that the Panthers have scored one touchdown in the two games he has sat out.

And we can’t totally ignore the fact that Jaylen Twyman opted out before the season.

Put it all together, and you’ve got 34 missed games from starters (40, if you include Baldonado). Some of those are more important than others, but ask yourself this:

Have there been times when a Pitt cornerback gave up a play? Because that could have been mitigated by Mathis. Have there been times when Pitt’s middle linebacker gave up a play? Because that could have been mitigated by Davis. And wouldn’t you have liked to see what Pickett would have done on those red zone trips at Miami?

Who knows? Maybe Twyman or Baldonado could have gotten to Jurkovec or Leary one or two extra times and made a difference.

Again: I’m not making excuses. This team is 3-4 on a four-game losing streak and just got beat by 40. It was a total team effort to lose like that, and they earned it. But I don’t think we can entirely overlook the impact of those injuries.

ONE PREDICTION

What’s a realistic expectation for Pitt?
This isn’t a prediction. It’s more of a question. Well, it kind of is a prediction. Or maybe a prediction tucked inside a question.

Let me try it this way: People often talk about the realistic expectations for Pitt football - what they are and what they should be. Along those lines, I’m going to lay out what I think are realistic expectations. I’m not really predicting that they will happen, I guess, but I’m kind of predicting what would need to happen for Pitt to settle into more-or-less consistent success.

I have to offer a big caveat right off the bat, though. No matter what I say here, no matter where I set the bar, if Pitt were to meet these expectations and this level of success, it won’t be enough. It won’t be enough for Pitt fans and sports fans in the city of Pittsburgh, because I’ll give away the goods right up front and say that I’m not setting the standard expectations at a national championship.

And while we can all sit here on a Friday during an off week in a season that has seen the team lose four in a row after starting 3-0 and say that a national championship obviously isn’t the standard expectation, you and I know the reality. We know that in this city, anything short of a championship is a failure.

It was a failure when Bill Cowher lost the AFC Championship Games in 1994, 2001 and 2004 and the Super Bowl in 1995. It was a failure when the Pirates made the postseason three years in a row and never won a series. Closer to home, it was a failure when Jamie Dixon “only” made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Really, the only teams I remember getting a pass for not winning a championship were Sidney Crosby’s first couple playoff appearances with the Penguins when they lost to the Senators in the first round and then the Red Wings in the finals in back-to-back years; everyone (if I recall) gave them a pass since it was a young team.

But I’m getting sidetracked; I think you know what I’m saying. Any team that has success but falls short of a championship is viewed as a failure in this town and probably most towns. So everything we say here comes with that caveat. We can all talk about how there’s an acceptable level of non-championship success, but we also all know that when the moment comes, disappointment will run rampant.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get back to the main topic:

What would more-or-less consistent success look like for Pitt?

Oh, one more caveat: What I’m about to lay out isn’t unique to Pitt. It really applies to the vast majority of college football outside of those 10 or so programs that have a legitimate chance to compete for a national championship every year. These aren’t lowered expectations for Pitt; they’re the realistic expectations for 50+ Power Five programs.

Now, where do we start? Let’s begin with the floor. Pitt should win eight regular-season games every year. That should be the starting point and everything should build from there. Every few years, there may be a dip to seven wins or even six, but it should never go below six, and those dips should be offset with nine or 10 wins every few years.

That’s the floor. But as we start to expand on this topic, there’s something important we should keep in mind. Programs like Pitt - and, again, the majority of college football programs - are going to operate in cycles. The very top teams in FBS can recruit at such a level that they sustain a certain level of success year to year.

That’s not as likely for the majority of teams in the sport. For the majority of FBS, it’s going to be up and down. There will be years where the natural movement of personnel turnover leaves some gaps in experience and talent, and those years will be the dips. Conversely, good roster management - recruiting and development - will create “peak” years (no relation).

Those are the years where things seem to come together, where the roster is deep with talent and experience, particularly at key positions. And those years are the really important ones, because those are the years where programs like Pitt have to strike. When you have that year with a strong roster, you have to compete for the conference title. That’s when the goals rise a bit, whether that means getting to the conference championship game or winning the thing altogether.

If you can get into a good rhythm with roster management, you should find yourself in that position every 3-4 years, I’d say. That’s a rough number off the top of my head, but I think it’s a reasonable goal.

I think if you can get Pitt to the point where you’re consistently winning eight or more every year and competing for a conference title at least once every 3-4 years and you never dip below six wins, then I think you’ve hit a sweet spot. Maybe I just loosely described the Dave Wannstedt era at Pitt. Or the Walt Harris era. Or…the Pat Narduzzi era?

Not one of those coaches was perfectly inside the parameters I laid out. But they were all right around it.

Sorry. I started to get sidetracked again, so we’ll wrap up the column on that note. Hopefully, for you, this week has been a sidetrack, some time off to cleanse the palate after the Notre Dame loss.