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Pitt Looking for Next Level Offensively

By Dave Holcomb
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Pitt is optimistic that Pickett’s bowl performance is a sign of good things to come.

The Pitt faithful welcomed Mark Whipple back to the Steel City with open arms last year in the hopes that the offensive coordinator could develop Kenny Pickett similar to the way he did Ben Roethlisberger when he served as Steelers quarterback coach from 2004-06. But it didn’t happen that way.

Other than a strong bowl performance to end the year, Pickett showed only small signs of improvement, leaving plenty to be desired in 2019. But with a great Pitt defense returning, the Panthers are once again pinning their program’s hopes to Pickett finally putting things together behind center.

If Pitt fans can be pleased with anything from their quarterback in 2019, it’s the fact that he didn’t get worse under the new offensive coordinator. Pickett saw his completion percent increase 3.5 percent from 58.1 to 61.6, and his yards per attempt average ticked up to 6.6 from 6.4. The rise in yards per attempt average helped Pickett complete his first 3,000-yard passing season.

However, the rising senior also attempted 159 more attempts in 2019 than 2018, which was more directly responsible for his jump in passing yards. And even with that many more pass attempts, Pickett only threw 13 touchdowns -- one more than his 2018 total.

Despite more yards per attempt, Pickett ranked eighth in the category out of 10 eligible quarterbacks in the ACC. Furthermore, his 13 touchdowns was 10th in the conference or last among the ACC teams who had one primary starter behind center last year.

Making matters worse, Pitt’s running game plummeted in 2019. After possessing a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in 2018, the Panthers top rusher, A.J. Davis, only gained 530 yards on the ground. The lack of production in the backfield led to Pickett averaging almost 40 passes per game.

So while Pitt desperately needs Pickett to improve, Whipple also must find a running back capable of supplementing the passing attack. In the ACC, Pitt went from third in rushing during 2018 to 13th in 2019.

In ACC contests, Pitt averaged under 3.3 yards per carry. Over the final four games, including the Quick Lane Bowl versus Eastern Michigan, the Panthers accumulated about 3.1 yards per rush.

If there’s any consolation, at least Pickett ended the year on a high note, going 27 of 39 with 361 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Behind his performance, Pitt won its first bowl game under Pat Narduzzi.

Pitt is optimistic that Pickett’s bowl performance is a sign of good things to come in 2020, but it’s premature to say that for certain. In out of conference games, Pickett completed 64.9 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 319.5 passing yards per game. That includes a solid performance on the road against Penn State.

But in the ACC, Pickett posted a 59.7 completion percentage and 227.4 yards per game with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Losing star wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, who posted 96 receptions, won’t help, but rising senior Taysir Mack appears ready to become the team’s top receiving target. Pitt also has other young wideouts aching to see the field in 2020.

Pitt returns eight starters from a dominant defensive unit that led the country in sacks per game and finished Top 10 in many other categories. The offensive line also has several important players coming back.

The key for Pitt, then, remains behind center and in the backfield to supplement Pickett’s improvement efforts. The Panthers have not won more than eight games since 2009. Pitt has the talent to make that jump this fall, but it won’t happen if Pickett can’t significantly improve during his second season under Whipple.