Takeaways: Pitt remains consistently inconsistent


Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Junior receiver Maurice Ffrench completed two passes from sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

Pitt (4-4, 3-1 ACC) prevailed 54-45 over the Duke Blue Devils (5-3, 1-3 ACC) Saturday at Heinz Field. The win kept the Panthers in the running to win the ACC Coastal Division, despite an extremely difficult out-of-conference schedule and a loss to cellar-dweller North Carolina.

The most consistent thing about Pitt football this season is that the team is mostly inconsistent. A new addition to the offense, a sputtering defense that failed to match last week’s effort and a typical Kenny Pickett performance highlighted Saturday’s matchup.

Here are three takeaways from Pitt’s big win against the Blue Devils.

V’Lique Carter has a larger offensive role than expected

First-year V’Lique Carter was a surprising standout Saturday in his first appearance this season. Carter rushed seven times for 137 yards and two scores, including a long gain of 62.

Carter, listed as a defensive back, has gotten practice reps as a scout-team running back. The first-year has been so impressive that he earned a role in the starting offense, which paid dividends for Pitt in its shoot-out against Duke.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson deserves credit for putting Carter’s blazing speed to use with play calls that got him in space. Both of Carter’s touchdowns and his 62-yard pickup came on plays to the outside of the field. Oftentimes coordinators try and utilize players in the wrong way, such as running a speedier, more agile player up the middle. But in this case, Watson gave Carter the perfect opportunities for his skill set, which was key for an offense that sometimes struggles to produce.

Carter certainly filled up the stat sheet, but he also passed the eye test with flying colors. The first-year routinely juked out defenders, shook off weak attempts at tackles and read his blocks perfectly to make big plays.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi kept it short and sweet in describing Carter’s sudden role in the offense.

“He’s fast,” Narduzzi said in the press conference. “Obviously, he’ll get a few more carries next week.”

Pitt’s defense has the chance to be good

It looked as if the Panthers’ defense might have finally found its stride after last week’s loss to Notre Dame. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates and his squad halted the Notre Dame offense and did essentially all they could to keep Pitt in the game. After this week’s display against Duke, last week is looking more like the outlier.

However, each poor defensive performance continually shows that Pitt’s leaky defense just needs to plug up a few small holes.

Every week, Pitt’s defense commits mistakes that are usually quite fixable. Missed tackles and blown coverages are common occurrences that result in long scores or in long gains that set up easy scores. All these defensive troubles contributed to Duke’s monstrous offensive output Saturday.

The major takeaway is that the defense isn’t always getting burnt because they’re athletically outmatched. Sure, Penn State and UCF were superior teams, but teams like UNC and Duke should not be hanging 38 and 45 points on this defense. The majority of the points the defense gave up in those two games came as a result of missed tackles, blown coverages and poor alignment.

If the Panthers fix these bad habits, the defense will be one to be reckoned with. The unit has shown it can make big plays, notching seven interceptions and six recoveries on 12 forced fumbles so far. These plays have often come at key times in games. Senior safety and captain Dennis Briggs forced a fumble at Pitt’s own 11-yard line this past week, which kept Duke from putting more points on the board at the end of the first half and ultimately might have been the difference in the game.

If the offense thrives like it did Saturday, it will be up to the defense to make or break this season. With Virginia and Virginia Tech — the two teams ahead of Pitt in the ACC Coastal Division — on deck the next two weeks, the true test for Bates and his squad’s spirit still lies ahead.

Pickett still might not be the answer, but he could be an answer

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett’s uninspiring season mostly continued against Duke. Pickett passed for only 150 yards on eight out of 18 attempts, with half his production coming on two completions to junior receiver Maurice Ffrench.

This has been a trend for him, as Pickett still hasn’t topped 200 yards and his weekly output usually comes on a big play or two.

Against Duke, the plays Pickett did make were spectacular. He read the defense perfectly on his 30-yard touchdown, a run-pass option where the defensive end committed to the tailback. Both of Pickett’s TD connections to Ffrench were perfect balls, especially the game-winner.

While Pickett has had a mostly slow year, the sophomore has made big plays at times. He has three rushing TDs this year and has shown a knack for getting it going on the ground when he has nothing through the air.

And while he might not be the gun-slinging savior fans hoped for, that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute to an offense that thrived on creativity this week. The Panthers could attempt to recruit a better passing quarterback while still utilizing Pickett in a smaller role to throw off defenses.

Essentially all of the Panthers’ running game will be gone after this year with the departure of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Carter looked good this week, but one good game doesn’t prove much. What better way to add some flair to the offense than to use Pickett as a wildcat QB of sorts?

Now, there’s a slim chance this would ever happen. Most quarterbacks don’t take kindly to being relegated to a smaller role. Ben DiNucci sure didn’t. Pitt also doesn’t seem like the type to use a dual-QB approach.

But there’s no denying it could be successful. Defenses would have to respect both aspects of Pickett’s game. Run him a few times, and opponents assume that’s what his role is. Then, when they overplay the run, he is still a good enough passer that he can make plays with his arm.

For now, we’ll just have to endure Pickett’s ho-hum, 145-yard games. Next year, though, they may be a lot less bearable without Ollison and Hall to keep the offense afloat.