Pitt football is off this week, and it’s safe to say the Panthers could use the rest following a wild win at Duke Saturday night. Pitt blew a 23-point lead in the second half and trailed Duke late, before V’Lique Carter caught a 26-yard touchdown pass with 38 seconds remaining.
The Panthers are now 4-2 overall and 1-1 in the ACC, with six conference games to go.
Here’s how Pitt is faring at each position at midseason.
Offensive line: D-
The offensive line has four new starters this season, and it has showed. The unit has struggled to run block and despite being better at pass protection than last season’s group, the line has still allowed too many quarterback pressures. The unit has committed 14 penalties, 12 of which occurred before the snap. Simply inexcusable.
Kenny Pickett has improved and looks more poised than he did a year ago. The junior quarterback has been asked to do more in Mark Whipple’s offense, and hasn’t gotten a ton of help from the offensive line or running game. However, he’s still thrown some costly interceptions and hangs onto the ball too long at times.
Running backs: D
The running game hasn’t been much of a threat to any opponent, though injuries to A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis haven’t helped matters. The running backs have caught a couple big passes, particularly A.J. Davis’ 59-yard reception versus Virginia to set up Pitt’s first touchdown and Carter’s game-winning touchdown against Duke.
Tight ends: C
The tight ends haven’t been game-changing but they’ve been much better than last year. Graduate transfer Nakia Griffin-Stewart and Will Gragg have caught 21 passes for 163 yards, more than doubling last year’s total from the tight end group. Griffin-Stewart has had some drops and Gragg a few penalties, and both need to improve their run blocking.
Wide receivers: B
Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench have been one of the best receiving tandems in the FBS this season, combining for 907 yards. Aaron Matthews has caught eight passes for 113 yards and thrown one of the biggest touchdowns of the season. The group had some drops early on, but has shown improvement.
Defensive line: A
It’s hard to state just how good the defensive line has been. The unit lost Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp early on, but has hardly missed a beat. Jaylen Twyman has been a force in the middle, leading the team in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (7). Defensive end Patrick Jones II leads the team with 12 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Deslin Alexandre has filled in admirably for Weaver and backup defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado has made the most of his reps.
The linebacking corps hasn’t received much attention, but the group has been effective. Graduate transfer Kylan Johnson has been a welcome addition at the money spot and is tied with Twyman with seven TFLs this season, including four sacks. Cam Bright has flown under the radar, but has put up some decent numbers, including a forced fumble and seven tackles against Duke.
Defensive backs: A-
The secondary hasn’t gotten the hype that the defensive line has, but that may change following the unit’s performance in Durham. Strong safety Paris Ford intercepted the ball on back-to-back drives and returned the first one for a touchdown. Cornerback Dane Jackson also had an interception in the game. Ford leads the team in tackles (45), while cornerback Damarri Mathis leads in pass breakups (8). Damar Hamlin has done well in coverage from the free safety position.
Special teams: C-
Kicker Alex Kessman has made just half of his field goal attempts, but is 3-for-4 in his last two games, with the lone miss being a 57-yarder against Delaware. The return game has struggled, but Ffrench finally got a 50-yard punt return against Duke to set up a Pitt touchdown. Punter Kirk Christodoulou is averaging nearly 44 yards per punt and has had 15 punts fall inside the 20-yard line.
Pat Narduzzi has long been criticized by fans and the decision to attempt a field goal on fourth-and-goal at the 1 in State College will undoubtedly be discussed by Pitt fans for years to come, but even the biggest haters have to give Narduzzi and Whipple credit for the gutsy trick-play call on fourth-and-3 against Central Florida a week later. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates has helped Narduzzi build the defense into the force it’s been. Narduzzi was known for his dominant defenses at Michigan State, and in his fifth year at Pitt, the Panthers finally have one of their own.