Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer
Anyone who reads my previews weekly knows how badly I messed up headed into the Notre Dame game. For that, I apologize, but this game will be different. The Pitt Panthers (3-4, 2-4 ACC) play the Florida State Seminoles (2-4, 1-4 ACC) at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium on the ACC Network. Both teams come off their bye weeks, with ample time to rest since their previous games.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jordan Travis has emerged as the key to the Seminole offense, according to Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“Travis is not easy to track down,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve got great skill, but to me it all revolves around Jordan and what he does.”
While his passing numbers won’t get looks from NFL scouts, Travis impacts the game on the ground in a similar way to D’Eriq King from Miami. While King possesses more agility and a bigger burst, opposing defenses have a tough time bringing Travis down, accumulating almost 400 yards on the ground to go along with his 758 yards through the air this season.
While his completion percentage remains at about 50%, he’s remained effective on the ground, with almost 5.5 yards per carry. Pitt’s run defense is still the best in the conference, and the second best in the nation, but preseason All-American junior safety Paris Ford played a crucial part of that.
Ford decided to opt out of the remainder of the season earlier this week. He leads the team in interceptions, while sitting second in pass breakups. Narduzzi emphasized the emergence of redshirt freshman safety Brandon Hill as the “next man in” with Ford gone.
“It’s an opportunity for [Hill] to take [the safety role] over and be the future safety at that spot, and I really think you guys will be impressed with what you see back there out of him,” Narduzzi said.
Hill played in four games last season but didn’t record any stats. Narduzzi also mentioned redshirt sophomore Judson Tallandier, first-year Buddy Mack III and redshirt sophomore Erick Hallett will have opportunities to fill Ford’s role this season. Tallandier played in four games last season, all in special teams capacities. Hallett has the most experience of the three, playing in six games this season, tallying 11 tackles, one interception and one pass breakup.
Mack is a first-year with very little experience to date. Clearly, no All-Americans will take Ford’s spot, but Narduzzi at least appears to believe that he has capable replacements for Ford.
Narduzzi wouldn’t reveal Pitt’s starting quarterback for Saturday, but said that it’s “risky” to start someone under center without many practice reps.
“[Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett] didn’t take many snaps, and [first-year quarterback] Joey Yellen took most of them [on Wednesday], then today all of a sudden he looks a little bit better, so who knows,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll see where it is, today is only Thursday.”
Yellen struggled in his second game as the Pitt starter, failing to reach the red zone once against the Fighting Irish. This game won’t come easy for Pitt with Ford gone and Pickett likely sidelined yet again, but Yellen has a chance to lead the Panthers to victory.
Florida State’s defense ranks second to last in the ACC in points allowed per game (35.0), rushing yards allowed per game (208.7) and passing yards allowed per game (281.8). Meanwhile, Pitt’s defense ranks top-four in the ACC in each of those same categories.
These high numbers, especially in the run game, will prove extremely important in a matchup that could see redshirt freshman quarterback Yellen control the offense for the third game in a row in Pickett’s absence.
Pitt’s rushing attack possesses the key to this game. Rushing for 44 yards on 20 carries against Notre Dame two weeks ago isn’t a winning strategy.
“We’ve got to establish some type of run game to open up the passing game, period,” Narduzzi said.
With a young quarterback only starting the fourth game of his career, the absence of a rushing attack can make his day miserable. Florida State has allowed opposing running backs to trample over its team, so we’ll see if the Panther run game can capitalize with a potential confidence booster.
Florida State’s inconsistent performances make this a difficult prediction. The Seminoles beat undefeated UNC a few weeks ago, then lost to unranked Louisville by 32 points. They performed far better against Notre Dame offensively than Pitt did, but what offense will show up on Saturday?
Yellen has two games under his belt this season, both against ranked opponents. Florida State presents a much easier opportunity for Pitt’s new starter. Yellen threw for almost 300 yards against Miami, who has a better defense than the Seminoles. Narduzzi could throw a curveball and start Pickett, but that appears doubtful considering he’s still rehabbing his ankle.
Yellen will show glimpses of his potential as this team’s future, while the defense bounces back from its performance against Notre Dame to reassert its dominance. But Florida State will come out on top because Pitt’s offense can’t keep up. Pitt often uses its safeties for support in the run game on early downs, so Ford’s absence will certainly impact the Panther’s stout run defense. The Seminole offense isn’t spectacular, but it’s just good enough to edge out this win.
Final: Pitt: 16, FSU: 20