Pitt Analysis: Low-Scoring Game Seems Likely

Virginia Tech, Pitt
Kenny Pickett is dangerous, but flawed. (Ivan Morozov)

For the second week in a row, Tech plays a team that stomped them last year. Similar to Georgia Tech, Pitt is undergoing a transformation in identity. Unlike GT, though, Pitt has played better this year, beating a good UCF team and nearly taking out Penn State. Hate him or really hate him, Pat Narduzzi has this team playing fairly well. They remind me of a more cohesive Miami—there’s knuckleheads and penalties aplenty, the offense is mercurial, and they look like a CFP team one week and a G5 leftover the next. Unlike Miami, they’re steady at QB and disciplined from front to secondary on defense.

Offense

If it weren’t for Georgia Tech, the transition Pitt’s undergone on offense would be the most dramatic the Hokies have encountered this season. Narduzzi kicked his last OC to the curb and brought in Mark Whipple, a northeastern guy who was in Miami for Randy Shannon’s last gasp, and around that coached at small schools and in the NFL. Gone is the run-first, grinding approach that looked like Wisconsin-east, and in its place is a pass-happy offense.

Don’t come in expecting Air Raid or the Hokies’ own spread-option game. This is more of a pro-style offense, with play-action, under-center calls, and an approach that favors a conservative short game full of crossing and turn-back routes. They have two tempos: fast and torpid. The latter comes when QB Kenny Pickett (#8) is running over to the sideline to get a play from his OC before relaying it in a conventional huddle. I’m not exaggerating—sometimes the broadcast will follow Pickett around after the snap and you can see the top of Whipple’s head pop into frame as they’re talking. There might be ten seconds left on the clock before they can snap, and that’s without any shifts or audibles.

The conventional running game is pro-style, mostly zone hand-offs and some gap runs. They are a small part of the offense, and I think this where the red zone difficulties come from. They aren’t awful at running, but they’re on the wrong side of average. That’s not too big a surprise since they lost two 1,000-yard rushers and four senior o-linemen. My impression is that Pitt decided in the off-season that they didn’t have the ability impose runs on defenses, so they weren’t going to push it; you can see the idea in play opening week versus Hooville.

From then on, hand-offs have seemed more like a change-of-pace/protect the pass thing when they hand the ball to the back. When they do call a conventional run, it’s often from what looks like a goal-line set, or heavy unbalanced alignment. Wide receiver screens, slow screens, and swing screens take up a lot of the snaps occupied by conventional runs on other teams.

More unusual is that they use direct-snap plays as part of their base offense. Expect to see something approximating the classic Wildcat along with spread sets with a running back in the gun. Their best play looks like a gap pin-and-pull sweep with the snap recipient:

They haven’t had a running back throw from it yet, though receiver Aaron Matthews (#6) got a three-yard completion somewhere in the season that might’ve been from a direct-snap alignment, and I saw Pickett with a throwback play. Since direct snaps are easily their best way to run the ball, I imagine Coach Foster is working up some alignments and keys to keep the play series contained.

Being a pass-first team, Pickett is the key to the offense. He’s much the same as last year, being a decent passer and a dangerous runner who seems to (again) pick up first downs every time he leaves the pocket. His passing

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