Pitt seeks significant improvement in passing game

November 9, 2018

You can easily throw meaningless numbers into the discussions that will revolve around Pitt’s game Saturday against Duke.

Stats such as:

• Coach Pat Narduzzi’s record after off weeks (1-2, with both losses coming in Thursday night games).

• Pitt’s record against Duke since joining the ACC (4-1, with Pitt scoring 217 points in those games).

But what is most relevant and revealing is how Pitt’s passing game has failed to live up to expectations, given the optimism coaches expressed before the season.

Pitt (3-4, 2-1) sits in the middle of the ACC Coastal title chase, but the Panthers did not get there through the air and won’t advance their chances without significant improvement.

Through seven games, Pitt does not have a player with 20 receptions (Rafael Araujo-Lopes leads with 19). The Panthers are 11th in the ACC in passing efficiency (117.1), 13th in yards per game (145.9) and last in yards per attempt (5.9).

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett has thrown five interceptions in seven games, which isn’t awful, but he’s yet to break the 200-yard barrier. Meanwhile, 99 of 129 FBS schools average 200 or more per game.

The problem might be Pickett is working in an offense that Narduzzi admitted might be too conservative.

“Sometimes,” he said Monday when confronted with the question. “I mean, there’s no doubt about it. Like I said, it’s players, it’s coaches (who share responsibility).”

He pointed to a pass interference penalty Notre Dame committed against wide receiver Maurice Ffrench that led to an unsuccessful 36-yard field goal attempt. Narduzzi would like to see more of those penalties, but they can’t happen without putting stress on the opposing defense.

“We’ve talked about that, as well,” he said. “Maurice Ffrench got chased, goes down the field, attracts a PI (pass interference penalty). We don’t even get (enough) of those because we don’t take those ... you know, very conservative.”

But Narduzzi doesn’t want to put all the blame in one area.

“It’s also what you do, what Kenny feels comfortable doing, too. It’s a little bit of everything, period,” he said. “It’s 11 guys out there. It’s protection, feeling comfortable, who is in the game at receiver. Are they making plays? Are they open, on time? It’s a lot.”

With Taysir Mack missing the past two games with an ankle injury (and no word on his return), the sudden emergence of junior wide receiver Aaron Mathews offers hope (four catches for 47 yards against the Irish).

Narduzzi said Mathews, a junior from Clairton, might have been disappointed through the first six weeks of the season when he had only three receptions.

“I just said, ‘Keep fighting, keep fighting.’ He’s practiced better. I look at guys who want to play,” Narduzzi said. “You better practice better. I’m happy for Aaron. He’s had some opportunities, made some catches, too. But he can still get better.”

Then, there’s the curious case of Apollo-Ridge graduate Tre Tipton, who has apparently recovered from a knee injury suffered prior to training camp in 2017. Yet, he’s getting little playing time and hasn’t made a catch since getting two in the opener against Albany. Tipton was in the Notre Dame game for the final desperation heave, but caught the ball out of bounds.

“Again, if you practice better, you play better, you get opportunities.” Narduzzi said. “Tre is a guy that’s going to get opportunities. He’s done some good things. He’s got to make more plays for us. He’s a guy that’s got the ability to make plays. We need to get him out there, period.”

Of course, if everything else fails, Pitt can remain competitive -- if not victorious every week -- with its strong running game. Qadree Ollison is third in the ACC with 646 rushing yards while his backup, Darrin Hall, is averaging 6.6 per carry.

“We’re going to stand on the run. That’s what we do well right now,” Narduzzi said. “That’s Pittsburgh football to begin with, that’s tough football. But we certainly have to throw the ball better than we are, period.”

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