And In That Corner … The Pittsburgh Panthers and a backup QB await Notre Dame

Joey Yellen Pittsburgh
ACC Media
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Not only is No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) unsure what Pittsburgh quarterback it will face, the Irish have to wonder which version of the Panthers (3-3, 2-3) will even show up Saturday. Pittsburgh has already oscillated from intriguing ACC dark-horse to growing turmoil around a sixth-year head coach.

What can Notre Dame expect on its first road trip, aside from an increased focus on pandemic protocols? John McGonigal of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offers some answers. On a very sincere note, this story could have been written without bothering John much, his coverage this week has been that thorough. If a story is linked below, it is because it is worth a quick read for Irish fans before Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC).

DF: This has been an up-then-down season for the Panthers. To underscore that, let’s try a chronological approach. Pittsburgh started out 3-0, garnering talk of an ACC title game run. At the least, the Panthers might pull off a notable upset or two, particularly with Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson all on the schedule. The strength of that rise was the defensive line, correct? It had 17 sacks through three games and it’s up to a nation’s best 29 through six. Is that front simply overrun with raw talent? Last I knew, defensive tackles Keyshon Camp and David Green were injured. Their statuses?

JM: Pitt’s pass-rush keyed the defense those first few weeks, as everyone expected it to before the season. Patrick Jones II skipped a potential Day 2 selection in the 2020 NFL draft to come back. Rashad Weaver, Pitt’s 2018 sacks and tackles for loss leader, returned from an ACL tear. And the depth behind them — Deslin Alexandre, John Morgan, you name it — showed up. The Panthers had seven sacks in each of their first two ACC games against Syracuse and Louisville, and they’ve still gotten after the quarterback the last couple games. But the loss of Camp, who’s “day-to-day” entering this weekend, has been significant. Like Camp, Green didn’t travel to Miami, and neither did defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado, who contributed four sacks last season and hasn’t played since Week 1. Those potential absences would hurt.

That defensive line sets up a delightful strength vs. strength matchup against Notre Dame’s offensive line. I don’t know that I have a question here, so much as pointing out they are each arguably the best in the country. How much are you looking forward to that measuring tape?

As a former high school lineman myself (though an untalented one), I’m excited to see the chess match that happens up front. One thing I’m curious to watch unfold is how many opportunities Pitt has to pin its ears back on third down. The way the Irish run the ball could keep them out of third-and-long, which is when Pitt’s front four, like any good pass-rush, tees off. The Panthers don’t need it to be third-and-long to get home, but Jones’ speed rush is so dangerous in those situations that staying out of them should be a real point of emphasis for Notre Dame on Saturday.

If the Irish offensive line holds up and gives fifth-year quarterback Ian Book time, he’ll be throwing against a secondary led by third-team All-American safety Paris Ford. Book and Notre Dame have struggled to push the ball downfield. How susceptible is this secondary to the vertical game?

I’d say this defense has been susceptible to defensive lapses downfield. Aside from penalties, that’s been the Achilles’ heel of this group during Pitt’s losing streak. The Panthers’ linebackers haven’t covered tight ends well, with Pitt allowing 204 yards and four touchdowns to that position group over the last three weeks. And at times, the corners have been bodied by bigger receivers, especially 5-foot-9 redshirt sophomore Marquis Williams. However, I wasn’t impressed with the separation Notre Dame’s receivers got last weekend against Louisville, which doesn’t bode well for the Irish against Pitt’s press quarters coverage. 

Then Pittsburgh loses three games, including in overtime at Boston College. The defense was not inherently exposed — 30.7 points per game may not be great, but it is more and more the tune of college football, one amplified in 2020 — but its offense did not do any favors. The Panthers averaged 21.2 points per game last year, and this season’s improvement to 24.4 against FBS competition has not been nearly enough. What lies at the core of Pittsburgh’s offensive struggles?

Three main things have held Pitt’s offense back this year (and really last year, too): A non-existent run game, a poor red-zone offense and dropped passes. The Panthers don’t have Tony Dorsett, LeSean McCoy or James Conner carrying the ball — and in some games, it wouldn’t matter if they were. Pitt’s offensive line has done a fine job protecting the quarterback but a lousy job getting any kind of push up front. That’s led to Pitt relying on the passing game, which isn’t perfect, either. Like they did last season, Pittsburgh’s receivers lead the country in drops. Add all that up and you’ve got an offense that can’t run the ball when it needs to, can’t trust its receivers 100 percent of the time and struggles to finish off drives. 

Does Pat Narduzzi have an aversion to scoring? Okay, that’s not fair, but it is a nod to increasing public criticisms of some of his clock and game management. In broad strokes, how would you describe Narduzzi’s decision making and the stress that may or may not be growing around the program? From here, Narduzzi responding to a question with “I don’t make calls on offense” made it clear those troubles are palpable, and it wasn’t exactly an endorsement of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.

I didn’t necessarily view the “I don’t make calls on offense” comment as a slight given the context. Narduzzi was asked about why running back Todd Sibley didn’t get more carries against Miami, and that was his response, just noting that it’s not his decision on which running backs are in and which aren’t. But of course, it is the job of his running backs coach and offensive coordinator, both of whom he hired.

As for the game management, there have been several instances over the years that have caused Pitt fans to yell at their TVs, the worst being his decision to kick a 19-yard field goal down by seven points in the fourth quarter of last year’s Penn State game. He made a similar decision at Miami last week, kicking on fourth-and-3 from Miami’s 12, down 12 points with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Narduzzi always says Pitt can’t settle for field goals … but sometimes they’re settling because he’s choosing to.

Now we get to the micro, the imminently pertinent is the quarterback situation. What are the chances senior Kenny Pickett (left ankle) plays?

Not quite 0 percent, but close to it. I don’t see how he plays after not being able to travel last weekend to Miami, with Narduzzi fearing that the swelling might get too bad after a pair of two-hour flights.

Without him, the Panthers will lean on Arizona State transfer sophomore Joey Yellen. Narduzzi espoused happiness “with the way he performed overall,” and going 22-of-46 for 277 yards is nothing to dismiss, particularly with six completions 19 yards or longer by your count. What one-week growth can Pittsburgh somehow realistically expect from Yellen to compete against a Clark Lea defense?

I’m not even sure the Panthers would need much of an improvement from him specifically. It’s more about the pieces around him. Yellen took a bad sack here and there, but Pittsburgh’s receivers had four drops at Miami, and the running game did him no favors. I don’t expect the latter to miraculously spark against this Notre Dame defense, so it’ll be up to Pitt’s blockers to protect Yellen and for him to connect on a few deep balls. Maybe the Panthers can do that early and force Notre Dame’s offense out of its comfort zone. 

Can we realistically expect Yellen & Co. to keep things closer than 10.5 points against the Irish? Is this the weekend  Narduzzi reverses the narrative?

For those interested in the spread this weekend, I do think Pittsburgh covers. I’ve even considered its chances of pulling off the upset. I’m not quite there yet, but Pitt is a talented team that needs this one desperately, and Narduzzi’s Panthers have shown in the past — at Clemson in 2016 and vs. Miami in 2017 — the ability to win games they have no business winning. Perhaps they’ll do it again Saturday.