Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: Whipple, Pickett, next year and turning the corner
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The 3-2-1 Column: Whipple, Pickett, next year and turning the corner

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In this week's 3-2-1 Column, we're thinking about the Peach Bowl, Mark Whipple, Kenny Pickett, Pitt hoops and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Whipple and Pickett
Really, this shouldn’t be in the “Things We Know” section. It should be in the next section, the “Questions” section, because that’s what it’s about:

Questions.

We’ve got a lot of questions these days, don’t we? It took about 60 hours or so for the tone of the Pitt fan base to turn from elation over the ACC championship to despair - or at least discouragement - about the course of things.

The first news was Mark Whipple’s resignation as offensive coordinator. There was some indication that this was coming, that at some point in the offseason, Pitt would make a change at offensive coordinator. And it appears this was something of a mutual parting, even if Whipple’s decision to go to Nebraska was something of a surprise to a lot of people at Pitt (and it was).

But the problems were compounded when, a day later, Kenny Pickett said that he had not made up his mind about playing in the Peach Bowl - leaving the door open for him to bail on Pitt’s first major bowl in 17 years despite having said after the ACC Championship Game that he planned to play.

So there are a couple questions I have. Which, again, puts this in the wrong place of the column, but that’s just how it’s going to go this week.

Question 1: Why is Mark Whipple not coaching Pitt’s offense in the Peach Bowl?

This is a big one for me, and I just don’t get it. Unless the split between Whipple and Pat Narduzzi was contentious or even adversarial, I don’t understand Whipple’s absence from Atlanta.

Sure, he’s taking another job. But guess what? Jeff Knowles is leaving Oklahoma State to be the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, and you know what he’s doing on January 1? He’s coaching the Cowboys’ defense in the Fiesta Bowl.

Just like Pat Narduzzi did when he was hired to be Pitt’s head coach but finished the job at Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Just like Paul Chryst did when he was hired to be Pitt’s head coach but finished the job at Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

Hell, just like Matt Canada did when he was hired to be LSU’s offensive coordinator but finished the job at Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl.

The Pinstripe Bowl.

And yet, Whipple is not coaching Pitt’s offense in the Peach Bowl.

I don’t get that.

Question 2: Is Pickett’s decision to play or not play really tied to Whipple?

I don’t get this either. Or, at least, I don’t get the suggestion that one has something to do with the other. I understand why Pickett might want to skip the Peach Bowl. He’s got a lot at stake. He has a future to think about. I would rather see him play, but I certainly can’t begrudge him the decision to pull out. I think his teammates would understand, and that’s good enough for me.

But what I don’t get is how Mark Whipple’s participation is a factor in that decision. The offensive coordinator isn’t going to make Pickett more or less likely to get hurt, unless they go to a running-quarterback option offense, which obviously wouldn’t happen.

My only thought is that Pickett might have been uncertain about this decision all along. Or, perhaps, he simply planned to delay the decision until after he could go home to New Jersey and talk with his family.

Maybe that’s it. But I have a hard time seeing the connection between Pickett’s indecision and Whipple’s resignation.

Who knows? This is a case where we have more questions than answers. So let’s quickly review a couple known facts:

Pitt went 10-2 in the regular season.

Pitt won the Coastal.

Pitt won the ACC.

Pitt got a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.

Those things all happened. And they don’t change based on anything that happened earlier this week.

Perfection
Let’s talk a little football now.

Let’s talk about perfection. No, 11-2 is not perfect. It’s really good, but it’s not perfect. What is perfect, though, is how Pitt closed the deal on its 11-2 season. After powering through 12 games to the Coastal title on the strength of one of the best offenses in the nation, the Panthers crushed Wake Forest - for the final three quarters, at least - with defense. Suffocating, dominating defense, the likes of which we haven’t seen too often against good quarterbacks.

“Any quarterback with a pulse,” right? That’s what we always say about Pitt’s defense and the key to beating it: you just need a good quarterback.

Well, Sam Hartman is a good quarterback. He has a pulse and he was one of best quarterbacks in the nation this season. Early in last Saturday night’s game, he had more than a pulse. He was positively in control, completing 12-of-18 for 118 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for one more score - all in the first quarter.

But the story changed, of course, in the final 45 minutes, and the key reason was pressure. Officially, Pitt’s defense was credited with two quarterback hurries on top of five sacks, but you and I know from watching the game that there was more. According to Pro Football Focus, Hartman was under pressure on 27 of his 56 drop-backs - 48.2%. PFF says both of his touchdown passes came when he was under pressure, but overall, he was 8-of-18 for 107 yards, the two scores and three interceptions when Pitt got to him.

That’s an effective pass rush, and once Pitt adjusted its attack, there was really no stopping the Panthers.

I’ll tell you what else I really liked: the play of the cornerbacks and safeties. It wasn’t great in the first quarters, but I thought everybody in the secondary really stepped up in the final three frames.

Per PFF, Erick Hallett was targeted 11 times and gave up five catches; Damarri Mathis had the same final line plus a pass breakup. Marquis Williams was targeted eight times and gave up three while breaking up a pass. M.J. Devonshire gave up two catches on five targets and had two pass breakups. And A.J. Woods didn’t allow a catch on either of his targets.

And none of that includes the interceptions, which were a mix of easy pickings or great plays. Pitt’s defensive backs take a lot of criticism because of the position they’re put in, but I thought all of those guys responded really well on Saturday night.

It really was perfect to take a season that had reached considerable heights thanks to offensive play and cap it with such a strong defensive performance.

Props to the fans
The only thing more impressive than Pitt’s defense last week in Charlotte was the crowd at Bank of America Stadium. The announced attendance was 57,856, which looked pretty darn good on TV, even if it was about 17,000 shy of capacity (which was alleviated a bit by tarps; novel concept, eh?).

But it wasn’t the whole crowd that impressed me. It was the segments of the crowd that were draped in blue, a sea of Pitt fans who got louder and more energized as the game progressed until the 26,000 or so Panther faithful seemed to have doubled in size to take over the stadium.

It was, quite frankly, awesome to see.

This fan base takes a lot of you-know-what. Some of it deserved (the sky isn’t always falling) but a lot of it not deserved. They have a reputation for not traveling well, but that comes with the caveat of declining to travel to Birmingham (the Detroit of the south) and Detroit (the Birmingham of the north).

Of course, they also have a reputation of not traveling to Heinz Field, which is neither Birmingham nor Detroit.

The truth is, this fan base has also had to put up with a lot. We’ve talked so many times this season about breaking 40-year streaks, but the reality is, those streaks shouldn’t take 40 years to break. It shouldn’t take 40 years to get 10 wins in a regular season.

But it has. 40 long years with so many 6-win seasons and 7-win seasons, so many disappointments, so many shortcomings.

And the fans try to make it cosmic. “Pitting.” As if these disappointments are somehow unique to Pitt and out of anyone’s control. It just happens because it’s Pitt.

No. It happens because so many of the Pitt teams of the last 40 years were mediocre. There’s nothing cosmic about that.

And yet, the fans came back. The fans showed up, week after week. Sometimes in stronger numbers and sometimes in not-so-strong numbers, and a lot of times those numbers looked even less strong than they were because of the size of the venue. But they showed up and supported the team.

Last Saturday, they got the payoff, and it was great that so many of them were there to see it in-person.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Is a corner being turned?
“This group, so far, has stayed together, and if we continue to do that - I’ve said this - I think we’ll start to turn the corner. Tonight was a big step, I think, for us with that.”

I’m the kind of person who tries really, really hard to avoid overreacting to any one event.

One play, one quarter, one game. I try to keep them all in perspective as pieces in a puzzle, chapters in a book, somethings in a something else.

I don’t want to make one game into something more than it is. It’s one game.

But Pitt’s win over Colgate on Thursday night wasn’t just one game. I mean, it was one game, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened in the context of the season, but more relevantly, it happened in the context of the previous two games.

In the previous two games, Pitt held a late lead but went cold offensively, missed a few key rebounds and slipped a couple times on defense to lose pretty much at the buzzer. Those were gut punches, in the words of Jeff Capel. A team can recover from one gut punch; but two? That’s a taller order.

So when Pitt was clinging to a tight lead with less than four minutes to play against a Colgate team that had already knocked off Syracuse and the Panthers went five minutes without a field goal…well, let’s just say it put me to thinking of my favorite Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album.

But just when an unfortunately familiar path was unfolding, something happened. Pitt changed course. Mo Gueye drove the lane for an old-fashioned three-point play, John Hugley somehow put a prayer into the basket with three defenders all over him, and in between those two shots, Pitt defended and rebounded.

And won.

Now, a three-point win over Colgate isn’t getting the Panthers onto the bubble. It’s barely a blip for anyone in the ACC, let alone the rest of college basketball. But for this team, for these coaches and players and even the fans, it was pretty big.

After two games of not being able to finish, Pitt did just that. Pitt finished. Pitt held onto a lead even when things weren’t going just exactly perfect. Pitt defended. Pitt rebounded. And Pitt made just enough plays to win.

Pitt improved. And if the three-game stretch vs. Minnesota, Virginia and Colgate told a story or formed an arc, it would be the story of a team that learned something from its trials, an arc of players surviving tribulations and thriving from them.

“Sometimes you have to go through the valley and we’ve been through it. And I’m not saying we’re out of it, but we’re figuring out how to climb out of it.”

That’s another quote from Capel after the game, and here’s what I think encourages him - and me, too, for that matter.

This team has gotten better. It was evident in the last two losses, when the Panthers hung with Minnesota and Virginia - the latter on the road - and even though the final result wasn’t what they wanted, they showed in those games that they could be competitive with mid-level major-conference programs.

That sounds like damning with faint praise, but I think you have to consider the big picture. Consider the challenge of losing two key players the week before the season starts (that was the first thing Colgate’s coach said in the post-game press conference; he couldn’t imagine the challenge of that kind of roster shakeup).

The losses of Ithiel Horton and Nike Sibande created a major restart that wouldn’t resolve itself in a day. It took time for this team to reconfigure itself, to learn how to play in significantly different lineup. And there were a bunch of stumbles and growing pains along the way.

But there were also little signs that things were coming together. Pitt was a little better at West Virginia than it had been in the season-opening loss to The Citadel. The Panthers were inconsistent enough to lose to UMBC at home, but they followed that with the aforementioned encouraging performances against Minnesota and Virginia.

Now, as Capel said, it looks like the team is figuring some things out. Hugley has emerged as a big-time player. Jamarius Burton is finding his role. Onyebuchi Ezeakudo is showing that he can contribute at this level. Femi Odukale has been dealing with an injury but has battled. And, game-by-game, the players are making just enough plays to be competitive.

I don’t think it will be all steps forward. There will be more struggles and steps back. But they have taken some steps forward lately and I’m encouraged.

How does it look for the future?
Back to football. And back to the future.

I was going to make a crack about how I don’t know if Pitt’s future is as bright as 1.21 gigawatts, but then I realized I would have to keep up the bit throughout this whole section, and that would take way more time than it’s worth. So I’ll get down to it.
What does Pitt’s future look like? Can the Panthers realistically entertain the notion of repeating as Coastal champions?

I…think they can.

It’s always about personnel, right? So let’s look at the personnel. There’s a big hole at quarterback and we don’t know how that will be filled, but let’s keep going anyway.

Running back - All three backs are set to return, including two guys who were pretty electric almost every time they got the ball (more on that in a minute).

Receiver - Taysir Mack and Tre Tipton are certainly gone; Shocky Jacques-Louis may or may not be. But most importantly, Jordan Addison will be back. So will Jared Wayne. And Jaylon Barden. And Jaden Bradley. And maybe Camden Brown joins that mix (and he could contribute as a freshman).

Tight end - I think every Pitt fan is excited about Gavin Bartholomew, and for good reason: he was outstanding as a freshman.

Offensive line - The dust is still settling on which linemen will return as super seniors, but there is a realistic chance that all five of the primary starters this season come back. Which would obviously be huge. But even if they don’t, at least some of the starters will return, plus guys like Matt Goncalves and Blake Zubovic who saw a lot of time this season.

Defensive line - Pitt loses Deslin Alexandre and Keyshon Camp, but we saw this year that the depth is strong on the line.

Linebacker - This is where the Panthers will experience the biggest losses. Phil Campbell, Chase Pine and John Petrishen are all out of eligibility, and Cam Bright has the option to return as a super senior or move on. That’s a lot of person potentially headed out the door. But they do have SirVocea Dennis coming back and some intriguing young talent like Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields. The depth won’t be what it was this season, but you’ll have that from time to time.

Defensive back - Damarri Mathis will likely move on, but everybody else should be back. That includes the rest of the starters, the rest of the guys who rotated in and a very strong group of young players who should be ready for some action next season.

So, if we put that all together, there’s a question mark at quarterback and question marks at linebacker, but that’s kind of it (potentially, depending on transfers and the like). Granted, quarterback is a giant question mark, and the answer there will have a significant impact on how the 2022 season goes.

But I actually don’t think the answer needs to be another Kenny Pickett, another guy who breaks all the records and gets a Heisman invite. With the other players on offense - especially the skill guys - I think Pitt could get by with just-okay quarterback play supplemented by impact turns from the receivers, running backs and tight ends.

And that’s just the guys they currently have on the roster. Who knows what the coaches will add through the transfer portal this offseason?

What I’m saying is this: as we sit here in mid-December, Pitt looks - on paper - like it should have every chance to repeat as Coastal champions in 2022.

ONE PREDICTION

Abanikanda will be a first-team All-ACC back in 2022
I’m going all the way on this one, because I am completely and totally sold on Israel Abanikanda.

That’s nothing new, really. I’ve been raving about Abanikanda since last season ended. I believed he had the highest ceiling of any back on the team and said that many times throughout the offseason, even if there wasn’t a lot of on-field evidence.

Abanikanda’s freshman season saw him carry the ball 28 times for 95 yards and a touchdown, and he caught two passes for 11 yards and a score. Averaging 3.5 yards per touch isn’t exactly the stuff that legends are made of.

And yet, there was something. I don’t know if I just had my own preconceived notions of what Abanikanda’s potential was, based on his high school film and the hype I heard from people at Pitt, or if there was actually something to see in those 30 touches last season. But I believed Abanikanda could be a top-end running back; I believed he had the skill set to really make an impact.

This year, I think we saw it. I don’t think he got enough opportunities to really dig in and be a consistent difference-maker. But I thought he made plays and looked pretty good doing it.

I had this theory that when Abanikanda gets the ball, good things happen. It sure looked that way, but did the numbers back it up?

Well, Abanikanda touched the ball 142 times on offense this season. He produced 832 yards on those 142 touches, an average of 5.86 yards per touch, which seems pretty good. He’s got eight touchdowns, so he scored once every 17.75 touches. For comparison, 2021 first-team All-ACC running back Sean Tucker scored 16 touchdowns on 266 touches, or one every 19 touches.

(Jordan Addison set the bar in that particular category for Pitt this season with one touchdown every 5.5 offensive touches.)

I want to go beyond the scoring, though, because my contention with Abanikanda is that good things happen when he gets the ball, so let’s look at numbers from that perspective.

On Abanikanda’s 142 offensive touches, he lost yardage just 10 times.

Conversely, he gained at least four yards on 80 of those 142 touches (56.3%). He gained at least five yards on 67 of his touches (47.1%). He gained at least six yards on 57 of his offensive touches (40%). And he gained at least seven yards on 50 of those 142 touches (35.2%).

I could keep going, but I’ll stop at eight. Abanikanda gained at least eight yards on 45 of his 142 carries; that’s 31.7%.

I don’t have access to the kind of data it would take to put those numbers in context with the rest of college football, but it seems to me that if roughly one out of every three touches is gaining at least eight yards and two out of every five touches gain at least six yards, it’s pretty good.

The problem, of course, is that he only touched the ball 142 times. If Abanikanda had 200 touches or 250, I think you’re looking at a player who could approach 1,500 offensive yards. I can put those numbers in context. This season, only two players in the ACC hit 1,500 rushing/receiving yards: Tucker (1,751 yards) and Addison (1,507). Duke running back Mataeo Durant was three yards short with 1,497.

Now, it’s probably unlikely that Abanikanda would actually get 200 touches. There were only three players in the ACC this year who hit that mark: Tucker (266 touches), Durant (283 touches) and Boston College’s Patrick Garwo (207 touches). But the rarity of 200-touch performances in the conference this season makes me think even more highly of Abanikanda’s chances to be one of the league’s best in 2022.

ACC teams aren’t lining up to drive a workhorse back into the ground. No backs in the conference are getting a giant workload, which means that even if Abanikanda splits time with Rodney Hammond and Vincent Davis next year, he still can get enough work to put up big numbers.

I don’t know what the target should be for Abanikanda’s workload in 2022. Hammond is talented and Davis is useful, so Pitt has a variety of weapons in the backfield and it is in the Panthers’ best interests to use them all and keep them fresh.

But I think Abanikanda has the highest upside and I think he’ll see his biggest workload yet as a junior. If that happens, I think he’ll produce and establish himself as one of the best backs - maybe the best back - in the ACC.