Mid-season grades: evaluating Pitt’s position groups during the bye week

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

First-year quarterback Joey Yellen filled in for the Panthers during the last two Pitt games while Kenny Pickett dealt with an ankle injury.

By Tyler Mathes, Staff Writer

Pitt entered its Week 4 matchup with NC State with a 3-0 record, including two ACC wins. The Panthers have lost four straight since then, now recuperating during their bye week following a 42-point home blowout at the hands of Notre Dame. One insane staff writer here at The Pitt News predicted Pitt to win that game, believe it or not, but that’s beside the point.

With four games left in their season, the Panthers can only afford to lose one more if they want to end the season with a winning record. But the top team in the nation, Clemson, lurks at the end of Pitt’s schedule. The game-by-game predictions I made prior to the season can be thrown out the window at this point.

Pitt’s bye week presents the opportunity to evaluate which Panther units have carried their weight thus far, and which haven’t. Let’s dive in.

Quarterbacks, B+

Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has produced a solid year so far. He missed Pitt’s last two games, which won’t help his draft stock, but he’s managed to accumulate almost 1,400 yards with eight passing touchdowns to three interceptions. Pickett also finds ways to get it done with his legs if he doesn’t have options open downfield. The New Jersey product has five rushing touchdowns on the season, making him responsible for 13 of the offense’s 20 touchdowns, and is averaging close to 4 yards per carry.

Redshirt first-year quarterback Joey Yellen stepped in the past two games with Pickett injured, and played far better against Miami than against Notre Dame. Yellen has thrown for 378 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in Pickett’s absence. The Arizona State transfer didn’t receive help from the rushing attack in either contest, and the future looks bright in Yellen’s hands if he can develop the rest of the season.

Running Backs, C

Pitt ranks second to last in the ACC this season with 98 rushing yards per game, posting a conference-worst 2.83 yards per carry. Sophomore running back Vincent Davis leads this mediocre crew with 91 rushing attempts on the season, yet all that usage has only amounted to 263 rushing yards. The only reason this group maintains a passing grade is the offensive line’s poor play, which hasn’t done the run game any favors.

Wide Receiver / Tight Ends, B-

Pitt has dropped the most passes in the country this year, while still managing to average the fifth most receiving yards per game in the ACC. First-year wide receiver Jordan Addison leads the team in both catches and yards, but also has double the drops of the next closest receiver. Pitt needs redshirt seniors Taysir Mack and DJ Turner, who have slowed down over the past two games, along with junior Shocky Jacques-Louis to open up the passing game and take the pressure off Pitt’s quarterback to force the ball to Addison. Tight ends have been virtually non-existent in the passing game this season, making just seven catches for 65 yards, so they only serve to lower the grade here.

Offensive Line, B

Redshirt senior center Jimmy Morrissey looks like a potential third or fourth round pick next year, and redshirt junior Carter Warren has just one sack allowed in nearly 500 snaps. This offensive line struggles with run blocking, though. Morrissey is the only starter with a Pro Football Focus run blocking grade of over 64.7, and the team’s 57.1 grade ranks 11th in the ACC, but they’ve kept Pickett off the ground for the most part this season.

Defensive Line / Linebackers, A+

The Panthers boast the best run defense in the ACC, and an NCAA-leading 31 sacks. There isn’t much else that I need to say here. Redshirt senior defensive ends, and likely future NFL draft picks, Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones II highlight this front seven with a combined 11.5 sacks between the two of them. Redshirt senior linebacker Phil Campbell III ranks top five on the team in tackles, and top three in sacks. Sophomore SirVocea Dennis has emerged as the bright young star of the linebacking group, ranks 12th in the ACC with a team-best 42 tackles.

Defensive Backs, B

This position group lost its touch after Week 3, and it’s hard to figure out why. It’s possible the group is just more tired now than they were earlier in the year. Depth has been an issue for this unit, which lost their no. 1 corner, senior Damarri Mathis, to injury before the season. 

The fifth-best passing defense in the ACC still gives up chunk plays at an alarming rate. Pitt has allowed nine offensive touchdowns over the past two games. Panther opponents scored five of those nine touchdowns from more than 30 yards out.

Special Teams, B

These guys remain a mystery to me. Redshirt senior kicker Alex Kessman can come out and drill a 58-yard field goal to tie the game in the fourth quarter, then miss an extra point in overtime. His only missed extra point came in overtime, unfortunately, but he hasn’t missed any other extra points thus far. Kessman has made just 70.6% of his field goals this year, but he has made the second-most field goals in the country. Redshirt junior punter Kirk Christodoulou has received plenty of work this season, punting eight times against Notre Dame, and adding about 4 yards to his net average from a year ago.

Pitt could be 5-2 right now if it weren’t for a last-minute NC State touchdown and an unfortunate missed extra point in overtime against Boston College. There’s no saying if Pitt would’ve beat the Eagles, but they at least would’ve had another chance in the second overtime.

The Panthers must get the dropped passes under control, improve the running game and limit the chunk plays if they want a chance at a winning record this year. They play the 2-4 Florida State Seminoles and the 2-4 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets for their next two games, both winnable opportunities. If they can win both and take that momentum into their game against Virginia Tech, they stand a reasonable chance to escape 2020 with a winning record.

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