The lowdown on Pitt from a Panthers beat writer

The lowdown on Pitt from a Panthers beat writer

Football

The lowdown on Pitt from a Panthers beat writer

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TCI recently spoke with Johnny McGonigal to get some insight on Pittsburgh ahead of Clemson’s game against the Panthers. McGonigal covers Pitt football as a beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

McGonigal hit on a number of topics during the following question-and-answer session, including Kenny Pickett’s breakout season, how he would try to defend Pickett and the rest of Pitt’s offense if he were Clemson, an area the Panthers are vulnerable and more heading into Saturday’s game.

Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity

Are you surprised to see Pitt sitting at 5-1 atop the ACC’s Coastal Division halfway through the season?

I’m not surprised they’re 5-1 judging by the opening part of their schedule. Opening against UMass and having other non-conference games against (teams like) New Hampshire. They lost to Western Michigan, which I didn’t expect. But I thought they were going to go down and beat Tennessee. I thought they’d beat Georgia Tech and beat Virginia Tech, but the way they’re playing, I guess, is what surprises me a bit. I expected Kenny Pickett to improve coming back for his fourth year as a starter, but, man, I didn’t expect him to be a Heisman contender midway through the season. And that’s what he is. That’s what everyone is talking about. It’s pretty remarkable what he’s been doing and what the offense has been doing, scoring the amount of points they’re scoring right now.

As someone who’s covered him throughout his Pitt career, what do you think is the biggest difference in the 2021 version of Kenny Pickett compared to what he was the last couple of seasons?

I think it’s a few things, but the one main thing I would say is his familiarity with the offense and how he’s grown within (offensive coordinator) Mark Whipple’s scheme. I had an opportunity back in June to sit down with Kenny at his family’s house in New Jersey, and we were talking about his decision to come back (to Pitt) at that point. And he said that if Mark Whipple wasn’t back as offensive coordinator for Pitt, he would’ve been in the NFL. He would not have come back. He views Mark Whipple as family, and he trusts him. And obviously that trust is paying off on the field.

They’ve been together as quarterback and offensive coordinator for over 1,000 days now. It’s his third season with Mark Whipple, and I think you’re just seeing him progress as a quarterback in terms of seeing the field and his feel around the pocket. He’s keeping his eyes downfield. He’s getting through his progressions better than he ever has before, and Mark Whipple is dialing up the right plays. And obviously there are a lot of weapons at his disposal with Jordan Addison, Lucas Krull and others.

What about Pitt’s offensive line? Is Pickett getting help from those guys?

It has been really good. This was my biggest question mark or weakness entering the season was the offensive line, and really that’s because it has been over the last few years here at Pitt. In 2019 and 2020, really they couldn’t do anything right. It felt like they were continually shooting themselves in the foot, but they are protecting Pickett at an elite level right now. They’re top 10 (nationally) in terms of pass blocking graded by Pro Football Focus. And when you watch the offensive line, it shows.

Obviously Kenny is buying himself some time getting outside the pocket and doing some of those things he’s really good at doing, but he’s stepping into a lot of these deep throws. He has time. And it’s an older offensive line. Carter Warren, Gabe Houy, Jake Kradel, Owen Drexel, these are all guys that have been in Pitt’s system for three or more years. And Marcus Minor, their left guard, is a senior transfer from Maryland. So this is an older group, an experienced group and one that’s playing really well right now.

You mentioned the weapons Pitt has at receiver. What’s the scouting report on the wideouts?

Jordan Addison is the No. 1 guy. He plays primarily out of the slot, but they can move him around the offense. (Taysir) Mack is an experienced guy, a super senior. He’s finally healthy this year and dealt with a couple of midseason surgeries last year. He’s a good jump-ball threat. Has some drop issues here and there but a transfer in from Indiana a few years ago. He’s productive. Jaylon Barden is a speed guy down the field. (Shocky) Jacques-Louis is kind of a good route runner on the outside. Jared Wayne, it doesn’t surprise me, but he’s the team’s second-leading receiver right now. He’s 6-foot-3 and a good jump-ball guy but also can get yards after the catch.

In terms of tempo, Dabo Swinney said this is the fastest offense Clemson will have seen this season. What does that tempo look like for Pitt?

They don’t run tempo every possession. It’s funny because Pitt fans have been upset over the last couple of years that Kenny Pickett will jog over to Mark Whipple (on the sideline) to get the play call sometimes, and that was a big deal. But Mark Whipple basically has some notes for him and they like to talk through plays. So they don’t go tempo all the time, but, in my opinion, when they do, they’ve had success at it. Then again, I think that’s a credit to Kenny Pickett’s confidence, leadership, experience and all of those things that kind of help the offense run.

So if you were Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and tasked with slowing down Pickett and this offense, how would you go about trying to do that?

What I would do is just try to pressure him. It’s easy to say, right? But try to disguise your looks. Try to affect the pass. And, look, when Virginia Tech was selling out to stop Kenny Pickett over the weekend, Pitt was able to run the ball. (Meaning) when they were dropping back into coverage, they were able to run the ball. Now I would venture to say Clemson’s defense is a little bit better than Virginia Tech’s. Quite a bit better. So will that complementary running game for Pitt that alleviated some pressure on the passing game on a windy day last week, will that do the same job against Clemson? I don’t know. I think that will be the deal. Make Pitt run the ball. Make them run it effectively back-to-back weeks.

Pitt’s offense has largely overshadowed the defense. What do the Panthers look like on that side of the ball under head coach Pat Narduzzi (a former defensive coordinator)?

It’s a classic Pat Narduzzi quarters defense. They sell out to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Most of the time, they leave their corners on an island and let them go to work. They try to get to the quarterback to force an errant throw or they try to stop the run. Stack the box. (Run-pass options) have really hurt this team. At least it did against Western Michigan in that loss. But since then, they’ve defended the RPO a lot better. I know Clemson runs quite a bit of that, so I’m interested most to see can Clemson get their RPO offense going against this defense? Or will the likes of (linebacker) SirVocea Dennis, (defensive tackle) Calijah Kancey and these guys who can create chaos in the backfield, are they able to affect the mesh point and affect D.J. Uiagalelei?

What’s a weakness or vulnerability for Pitt that you think Clemson could exploit?

I think it’s the RPOs. Because Narduzzi said Clemson is going to be the team that runs the RPOs the best in terms of what they’ve seen this year. They really got gashed time and time again against Western Michigan. It was third-and-7, third-and-8, third-and-9, and they just kept hitting these RPO slants over the middle. Pitt had no answer for them at all. So if Clemson is able to hit on those consistently and for first downs, especially on third-and-medium, I think Clemson wins the game. If they’re not able to hit on those RPOs, I think Pitt wins. I think it’s that simple because I think Pitt’s offense is going to be able to get in the end zone, I think, four times. But it’s a matter of if Clemson is able to do the same. And I think that’s the path that they’d be able to do it.

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