Everything You Need to Know: Louisville at Pitt

Kickoff: Noon (ACC Network)

Spread: Pittsburgh -3 (O/U 55.5; Bovada)

Last Time:

Pitt scored 42 first half points, 35 coming in the second quarter, as the Panthers cruised to a 45-34 win over Louisville in November 2015. Panthers QB Nathan Peterman threw for four touchdown passes, with receiver Tyler Boyd (11 rec., 103 yards, TD) and running back Qadree Ollison (28 carries, 152 yards, TD) going over the century mark in receiving and rushing, respectively. Pitt’s defense also did its job against Louisville, holding the Cardinals to -1 rushing yards, scoring a pick six, and tallying seven sacks.

Pitt leads the all-time series 9-8. The Panthers have won five of the last six in the series, dating back to 2008.

Meet the 2020 Pitt Panthers

While they aren’t the powerhouse that they used to be in the ’70s and ’80s, Pitt has established itself as an above average, perhaps good ACC football program. Head coach Pat Narduzzi enters his sixth season as Panthers head coach with a 38-29 record, taking his team to bowl games in all but one season. In 2018, they won the ACC Coastal Division title with a 7-5 regular season.

Coming off an 8-5 campaign last season, Pitt is looking to establish itself as a potential dark horse for a second ACC Championship Game visit in three seasons. They are currently 2-0 with wins over Austin Peay and Syracuse, and ranked #21 in the AP poll.

Offensive Players to Know: QB Kenny Pickett, WRs DJ Turner and Shocky Jacques-Louis

The quarterback position has been relatively stable since Nathan Peterman left for the pros in 2016. Kenny Pickett has been the guy at the helm, making 29 career starts dating back to his true freshman season (2017). He’s got solid arm strength and has been improving on accuracy over the years, going from 58.1% percent in 2018 to 69.6% through two games this year (he also had 61.6% last year). He’s also got decent ability as a scrambler, and a lot of people have tabbed him as a deep sleeper for the 2021 NFL Draft due to his impressive physical traits.

One problem, though, is that Pickett hasn’t been able to stretch the field a lot. His career average for yards per attempt is 6.7, and Pitt itself has ranked outside the top 100 nationally the last two years in that category. They also haven’t ran the ball well since last year (118th nationally in 2019 with 3.5 yards per carry), so the offense has been limited in recent years.

Due to Louisville’s problems with big plays through the air, Pitt’s wide receivers could at least make things interesting against the secondary. The Panthers picked up DJ Turner as a grad transfer from Maryland, and he’s been the leading receiver through two games (124 receiving yards, TD). Shocky-Jacques Louis is the top returning receiver for Pitt and averaged over 15 yards per catch last season, a viable deep threat that can make plays outside. They also have freshman Jordan Addison as a reliable target, with 14 receptions heading into Saturday (twice as many as the next leading receiver).

Defensive Players to Know: DL Rashad Weaver & Patrick Jones II, S Paris Ford 

Pat Narduzzi built his brand as a defensive guru under Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati and Michigan State, including four straight seasons where the Spartans ranked in the top ten in both rushing and total defense. In year five as Pitt head coach, his Panthers defense finished 15th in total defense (312.9 YPG) and held opponents to 22.5 points per game, his best since assuming the role.

Though star defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman opted out of the season, Rashad Weaver is an outstanding talent on the defensive line. He had a solid 2018 season (6.5 sacks, 14 TFL, two forced fumbles, four PBUs), but a torn ACL last year prevented a possible breakout season. He returned with a stellar outing against Syracuse last week, earning him Walter Camp’s National Defensive Player of the Week award (two sacks, three TFL).

Pitt also has a top prospect lining up opposite of Weaver with Patrick Jones II. Jones is projected to go very high on several NFL Draft boards, tallying 13 career sacks (8.5 in 2019), 19.5 tackles for loss (11.5), and five forced fumbles (four). He has a huge arsenal of moves that allows him to beat matchups on the edge or inside, his bend and dip techniques the most notable. Jones is also a fluid runner and really explosive when he has an open lane, so Louisville will need to get hands on him to prevent them from making plays in the backfield.

With Weaver and Jones, Pitt’s defensive line will be the toughest that Louisville faces this season. The staff likes to move both around as RDE or LDE, which means Louisville will need to keep track of them in pre-snap reads.

Add Paris Ford to the mix, and you could also make the argument that Pittsburgh’s defense will be the toughest that Louisville faces all season. Ford is a rare safety in college football that can play both the run and pass really well, at a really high level. A lot of football experts like to use “weapons” as a terminology for offensive players, but Ford really is one for the Pitt defense. He is a very aggressive player that doesn’t shy away from contact; if anything he outright embraces it with violent hits and solid tackling. Ford can also play in zone coverage really well and make plays in pass coverage, which could pose a threat for some of Louisville’s intermediate and deep passes they like to hit. The energy level that Ford brings to his team is contagious, and with him on the field, Pitt is absolutely dangerous.

Points of Interest:

  • Will Louisville’s D be able to avoid big passing plays?

I guess the broader question would be if Louisville’s defense can avoid the big plays that doomed them in last week’s loss to Miami. But with Pitt’s offense unable to show any evidence that they can run the ball consistently, Louisville’s defense should be fine there.

Where Pitt could hurt Louisville, though, is through the air. They have the capable pieces with Pickett’s arm and the big play ability of both Jacques-Louis and Turner, but they haven’t had a game against FBS competition where it all comes together for them. Louisville has been prone to the big pass the last couple years, and last week a lot of people are worried about the busted coverage and assignments that happened throughout the game (and especially in the second half).

It’s a prime recipe for Pitt to have a breakout offensive game, so Louisville will need to do two things; get a pass rush going, and avoid safeties playing too shallow in pass coverage.

  • Can Louisville’s offense avoid getting disrupted by the Pitt DL?

Pitt is currently #1 in the nation in rushing defense (26 YPG w/0.93 YPC), #4 in passing defense (128 YPG, 1:3 TD-INT ratio, 4.5 YPA), and leads the country in sacks (ten).

Louisville’s offensive line has been good in general for both the run and pass, but this week will really test them with the edge rushers that Pitt has. Weaver and Jones are capable of making plays both inside and outside, and are smart enough to shoot gaps if they are open for them in Louisville’s patented zone running scheme.

With how potent Louisville’s offense has been in the first two games, the Cardinals will get their plays and their points. I think if you’re looking for how Louisville gets its points, they might have lean on Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick to win their matchups. Pitt’s rush defense has been exceptional dating back to last season, where they held opponents at 2.99 yards per carry and only one team ran for over 200 yards against them.

Pitt has a lot of talent in the front seven outside of the edge rushers, and Narduzzi will throw a lot of different looks at Malik Cunningham to fluster and create pressure. That could lead to plays in the backfield and force Louisville to come from behind the chains, which could open the door for Ford or fellow safety Damar Hamlin to get a takeaway.

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