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Countdown to Kickoff: 2020 Opponent Previews - Pittsburgh

They’ll be great on defense again, but can the offense take a step forward?

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Eastern Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The tentative 2020 opponent preview series continues with the Pitt Panthers, whom Tech is set to host after a bye week on November 14.

2019 Season in Review

Record: 8-5 (4-4 ACC)

Pitt did their part to achieve ACC Coastal nirvana by going 4-4 in conference play, but their most memorable games were in the non-conference slate. The Week 3 contest against No. 13 Penn State featured one of the strangest coaching decisions of the year: down 17-10 with five minutes left, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi elected to try for a field goal from the PSU 1-yard line instead of trying to get one yard to tie the game up. His explanation was unsatisfying. The field goal went off the upright, and Pitt ended up losing by the same score. On the bright side, that game provided the final bit of charge for the fabled Pitt Superweapon. The victim was No. 15 UCF, and Narduzzi at least somewhat made up for his prior blunder by dialing up a trick play for the winning score in the final minute, enabling Pitt to pull off a thrilling 35-34 victory.

Narduzzi’s squad was a defense-oriented team that finished third in the ACC in points allowed per game (22.2), first in rushing yards allowed per game (105.8), and first in the nation in sacks per game (3.92). On the flip side, they were in the bottom half of the conference in most offensive categories and finished second-to-last in points per game (21.5). They often didn’t have the juice to put teams away, but the defense kept them in almost every game. Only two of Pitt’s games—the Week 1 loss to Virginia and the Week 13 shutout loss to Virginia Tech—were decided by a margin of more than 10 points.

If just a couple more plays had gone their way, Pitt could very well have finished the year 10-3 with one of the best non-conference resumes in the country. On the flip side, they were equally close to finishing 6-7 or 5-8 with a loss to an FCS team. All that to say: last season was pretty on brand for the Panthers, but they’re in a good position to improve in the 2020 campaign.

Key Departures

LBs Saleem Brightwell and Kylan Johnson: Brightwell was a longtime contributor for the Panthers, racking up 61 tackles in his final season. Johnson spent one year in Pittsburgh as a graduate transfer from Florida and emerged as an impact player, recording seven sacks and two forced fumbles.

WR Maurice Ffrench: Ffrench racked up a team-high 96 receptions and 850 receiving yards in 2019. He was never a burner, but he served as QB Kenny Pickett’s safety valve and will be tough to replace.

Key Returnees

SS Paris Ford and FS Damar Hamlin: Pitt’s defense will once again be the strength of the team in 2020, with eight starters returning, and none might be more important than their veteran safety tandem. Ford is a versatile playmaker best known for his tackling ability, but he can be a menace in coverage too. He had 90 tackles, three interceptions, nine pass breakups, and three forced fumbles a year ago. Hamlin had 84 tackles and 10 pass breakups and is a veteran who can lock down center field, enabling Ford to roam around and follow the play.

Most of the front seven: Pitt brings back nearly everyone from one of the most productive defensive fronts in the game. Three linemen who had 10+ tackles for loss return: Edge DE Patrick Jones II (11.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks), DT Jaylen Twyman (12.0 TFL, 10.5 sacks), and Base DE Deslin Alexandre (10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks). On top of that, DE Rashad Weaver and DT Keyshon Camp—who were projected to start in 2019 before missing the season with injuries—will be in the mix. Tack on the return of linebackers Cam Bright (9.0 TFL) and Phil Campbell (5.5 sacks), and this front seven is absolutely loaded.

QB Kenny Pickett: As he enters his third year as the starter, Pickett has yet to truly put it together over a full season. He cracked 3,000 passing yards a year ago and delivered a heroic effort while playing through an injury in the win over UCF, but he struggled to string together multiple good performances in a row, and his 13:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio was underwhelming. Part of that was because it was his first year under new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, and the hope is that Pickett will make strides going into his second season in the system.

WR Taysir Mack: With Ffrench’s departure, it falls to Mack to take on the reins of being the offense’s go-to receiver. He had 736 receiving yards this past year and has shown flashes of immense talent, and Pickett will be counting on the rising senior to emerge as a reliable target from week to week.

C Jimmy Morrissey: Pitt brings back its first-team All-ACC center, who will anchor a line that returns some experienced players but has to find a couple new starters.


TE Lucas Krull: A graduate transfer from Florida, Krull is set to step in at tight end for the Panthers. He has good size for the position at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, but he only had nine receptions over his two seasons in Gainesville. Linebacker Kylan Johnson had a similarly pedestrian stat line for the Gators before having a breakout season as a grad transfer for Pitt last year, and the Panthers are hoping to recapture that magic with Krull.

OT K.J. Wilson: The other offensive grad transfer, Wilson, comes from Hampton and will be in the mix to start at right tackle—where he would be replacing Nolan Ulizio, who himself was a grad transfer from Michigan.

RB Israel Abanikanda: Pitt’s run game took a massive step back in 2019, as nobody was truly prepared to step into the void left by Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. None of the three backs who split time last year were truly impressive, and while senior A.J. Davis is the presumed starter, Abanikanda could earn a good chunk of playing time with a good early showing.

2020 Outlook

If the season plays out to completion, one thing is certain: Pitt’s defense will be among the best in the ACC once more, and possibly among the best in the country. The Panthers have a daunting combination of talent, experience, and depth in the front seven, and their ability to generate pressure in the pass rush will create opportunities for Ford and Hamlin to make impact plays in the defensive backfield. Expect a lot of low-scoring games for the Panthers this fall.

Exactly how far this team can go will depend on how much the offense can improve in year two in Whipple’s system. Pickett has a high ceiling if things can come together, but he’ll need a couple more receivers to emerge as reliable targets alongside Mack and a major boost in production from the ground game.

If the offense can’t make much progress from a year ago, Pitt is probably looking at a 5-5 or 6-4 season with a lot of close games. If the pieces finally fall into place, eight wins is very possible, and an upset of Notre Dame for a ninth win (in a series where every recent game has been remarkably close) might not be out of the question.

As for the matchup with Tech, expect a second straight low-scoring game between two teams with seasoned defenses that are both finding their way on offense. The Jackets’ path to victory will hinge entirely on establishing the run. If Tech falls behind by a couple scores, it will mean a young quarterback throwing frequently against a defense that thrives on generating pressure and forcing mistakes in the passing game.