We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with Mike Wilson, a contributor over at Cardiac Hill, SBN’s blog for the Pittsburgh Panthers. We talked about the status of Panthers QB Kenny Pickett, nightmare fuel, and the match-up between two teams both looking to break a losing streak.
TN: Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett is unfortunately injured, and we wish him a speedy recovery. Will Pickett be able to play in this game? If not, what does backup Joey Yellen bring to the table? Does his skillset contain strengths that Pickett’s doesn’t?
CH (Cardiac Hill): Early this week, it seemed certain Joey Yellen would start. But Pat Narduzzi said on Thursday that Kenny Pickett was on the mend, and on Friday there was one report that Pickett would start. That hasn’t been confirmed by Pitt yet, so that remains to be seen. Yellen has flashed some skill but has not yet shown he is prepared to take the reins and lead the team to wins. He lacks Pickett’s mobility, and that’s a problem because the team’s offensive tackles offer little to no protection. At times, he has looked like a better passer than Pickett, but he struggles under duress and makes unforced errors even in the absence of pressure. Pitt relies heavily on Pickett’s consistency and big-play ability, and Yellen lacks both of those traits. So another Yellen start would be a worrisome sign for the Panthers.
TN: The Panthers have lost four games in a row, but two of them were by just two combined points to NC State and Boston College, and the last two were without an injured Pickett. It’s my opinion that Pittsburgh is better than their record indicates. Do you agree with that characterization? Or does this Pittsburgh team have serious flaws?
CH: It doesn’t seem to me that Pitt is better than its record indicates, but that’s not to say it’s not a talented team. The problem with Pitt is that it relies heavily on individual talent and has a fair amount of that, but it lacks cohesion and depth. As a result, if one player is taken out of the lineup, a whole position group can fall to pieces. That’s been a huge problem this season, as the losses of Damarri Mathis and Kenny Pickett have hurt the defensive secondary and limited the offense. And the secondary took another hit this week with the loss of Paris Ford. Of course, if Pickett returns at 100 percent, that changes everything. Essentially, the offense gets its engine back, and it can at least compete with low-scoring opponents. But the secondary remains a problem without a solution in sight, and as things stand, Pitt looks like a 3-4 team that deserves its record and is heading for a 4-7 season.
TN: Head coach Pat Narduzzi brought a pretty exciting quarters match coverage scheme. How good is this defense, and how big is the loss of safety Paris Ford, who recently opted out of the season?
CH: The defensive line has future NFL draft picks in Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver. So that position group is a strength. So is the linebacking corps, as Phil Campbell is solid and SirVocea Dennis is a rising star. Those two position groups stuff the run and keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and they actually have Pitt leading the nation in sacks, with 31. But the secondary is in shambles and has cost the team games. In particular, Jason Pinnock gave up back-to-back game-winning receptions in Pitt’s losses to NC State and Boston College, and Marquis Williams is young and prone to giving up big plays as well. Paris Ford was the one playmaker opposing quarterbacks had to worry about in the Pitt secondary, but with him gone, teams can throw downfield on Pitt play after play with virtually no repercussions.
TN: Who is your favorite Philadelphia mascot? Are you a Gritty person, a Philly Phanatic person, or does Roc the Panther get your vote? If you’re a secret Nittany Lion mascot fan it’s OK to tell us, this is a safe space.
CH: I’m a Pittsburgh guy and not a big fan of anything related to Philly sports. But it’s hard not to appreciate Gritty.
TN: How much success do you think Pitt will have in trying to shut down Florida State’s read-option ground game? Pitt’s defense seems to be about 21st in SP+, and the FSU offense has been inconsistent. If FSU is going to have success, how would they get it done?
CH: The Pitt run defense is solid. In fact, Pitt ranks second in the nation in run defense, giving up only 69.1 rushing yards per game. It may give up a big play here and there, but nobody should bank on racking up rushing yards on the Panthers. So they should do well defending the run. With that said, the secondary is weak, and the way to beat Pitt is by accruing yards on passes. The Panthers give up 228.3 passing yards per game, and 16 of the 20 touchdowns they’ve allowed have been scored on passes. Phil Jurkovec of Boston College, Devin Leary of NC State and Ian Book of Notre Dame all had huge games at Pitt’s expense. If Jordan Travis can do the same, Florida State can win.
TN: On the other side of the ball, what’s the source of the struggle with the Panthers’ run game? Do you think this offense will be able to hit enough explosive plays in the pass game against an FSU defense that’s 85th in SP+?
CH: Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has insisted on starting Vincent Davis at running back, regardless of the results. He has speed and some promise, but he is 5’8”, 175 pounds and hasn’t been able to rack up yards or break through in short-yardage situations. The team could lean on bigger running backs like Daniel Carter or Todd Sibley Jr., both of whom have been effective, but Whipple seems to have given that little thought. So the source of the issue seems to be questionable personnel selection on the part of the coaching staff. As for the passing game, Kenny Pickett could come up with some big plays and win the game, but Joey Yellen hasn’t proven he can do the same.
TN: Alright, it’s prediction time. Who do you see winning this game, how do you think they do it, and what’s your score prediction?
CH: Florida State is averaging 24.3 points per game over its last three games, all of which were against solid competition. Since Joey Yellen took over, Pitt has scored 11.0 points per game. If Yellen gets the start, that more or less holds up, with Florida State beating Pitt 21-10. If Kenny Pickett starts, I envision a 24-21 Pitt win.
A big thank you to Mike for taking the time to chat with us! Don’t forget to check out Cardiac Hill for your Panther coverage needs. FSU plays Pittsburgh today at 4pm.