Today’s Georgia Tech football opponent rundown features the defending ACC Coastal Champions, the Pittsburgh Panthers.
The Pittsburgh Panthers enter 2019 with high expectations and are looking for their second straight ACC Coastal Championship, however, the Panthers will have to replace a considerable amount of talent.
Last season, the Panthers went 7-7 on the season including a solid 6-2 record in ACC play en route to a Coastal Division championship. They would end up ending their season on low notes though losing the ACC Championship game to Clemson by a final off 42-10 before taking on Stanford in the Sun Bowl where they would lose 14-13. The Yellow Jackets and Panthers did meet last season in Pittsburgh in which the Panthers walked away with a 24-19 win over TaQuon Marshall and the Yellow Jackets. Ultimately, a sloppy first half by the Jackets doomed them despite a strong second half comeback.
Overall, the Panthers last season in general exceeded expectations but also were the beneficiaries of a weak ACC Coastal for the most part with down years from usual contenders in Miami and Virginia Tech not to mention the Yellow Jackets. The Panthers offense last season was pretty average scoring just 25.6 points per game while the defense allowed 27.8 on average last season.
In 2019, the Panthers have five starters returning on offense including just one offensive lineman. The most important returning offensive starter is junior quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett is coming off a considerably good year for the Panthers, completing 58.1% of his passes for 1,969-yards, and 12 touchdowns while throwing just six interceptions. Pickett saw a noticeable step up in his play from his freshman season and if the Panthers want to repeat as division champions, Pickett will once again need to take another step up in his game.
The weapons that the Panthers will have around Pickett, however, are questionable with several key losses following this past season. The first major question mark is that of running back where the Panthers lost their top two backs who combined for over 2,000-yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Currently, junior tailback AJ Davis is slated to be their starter in 2019. Davis has minimal experience so far in his time in Pittsburgh with just 48 career carries for 174-yards and a lone touchdown. The Panthers have shown a dedication to the run game at times in the past, it will be interesting to see early in the season how much they trust their tailbacks and keep the ball on the ground.
At wide receiver, the Panthers return two starters in Taysir Mack, a former Indiana Hoosier and Aaron Mathews. Mack led the Panthers in receiving yards last year with 557-yards, doing so over 25 receptions. Mathews, on the other hand, has been less of a threat in the past than Mack, compiling just 31 career receptions for 360-yards. An additional notable returning receiver for the Panthers is Maurice Ffrench who had 35 receptions for 515-yards and a touchdown last season. Mack and Ffrench create a strong one-two punch for the Panthers in their receiving game but beyond those two, the Panthers will need to find their depth early in the season and provide weapons for Pickett to throw to.
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As mentioned above, the Panthers return just one starting offensive lineman from last season, that being junior center Jimmy Morrissey. Last year, the Pittsburgh offensive wasn’t great in their pass protection, giving up 33 sacks over 14 games. Protecting Kenny Pickett will be a major key to success this season especially if they find it hard to replicate their success when it comes to running the ball. As the lone returning stater but also the center, Morrisey will have a big role in 2019 in making sure the Panthers offensive line is up to the task.
The Panthers defense last year as talked about above was pretty bad and it can be seen across their defensive stats. The bad news for the Panthers in 2019 is that they will have to replace a couple key cogs in their defense. Overall, they return six starters in 2019 but have to replace four of their front seven from last season.
One of the top returning defensive player for the Panthers in 2019 will be free safety Damar Hamlin who enters his senior season. Hamlin in 2018 put together a 76 tackle season including three tackles for a loss. He also had two interceptions, four pass deflections, and a fumble recovery. He is one of three returning starters in the Pittsburgh secondary joining senior Dane Jackson and junior Jason Pinnock.
The Panthers last season allowed over 200-yards through the air per game but with an experienced secondary, that number should come down a bit in 2018. While their pass defense should take a step forward in 2019, it will be interesting to see how their rush defense does as well. Replacing four members of your front seven could always be a challenge especially when it includes losing your top tackler from the year before (Oluwaseun Idowu; 82 tackles, 9.5 TFL, and 2.5 sacks).
Perhaps the biggest returning defensive player for Pittsburgh, however, is junior defensive end Rashad Weaver. Weaver had a terrific sophomore season, with 47 total tackles including 14.0 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He was the only Panther to have more than 2.5 sacks in 2018. He’ll be expected to elevate his game in 2019 while pushing for double digit TFLs and sacks as Pittsburgh’s premier pass rusher. Another notable returning defensive player for the Panthers is linebacker Elias Reynolds who had 49 tackles including 3.5 for a loss and one sack last season. Both players will be relied upon to be the mainstays and difference makers among their front seven.
Pittsburgh returns almost all their special team starters in 2019 which should serve them well. Maurice Ffrench is a dangerous returner returning two kickoffs for touchdowns last season and an average of 27.4 yards per return. Junior Alex Kessman will need to be better at place kicking after making just 13-of-17 field goal attempts last season, he did however do well in extra points, making 40-of-43. Punter Kirk Christodoulou only averaged 41 yards per punt last year and a few more yards can make a difference, if he can become more consistent in nailing the ball for longer punts closer to 44 or 45 yards, Christodoulou could become a huge weapon for the Panthers.
What to expect on November 2nd:
On November 2nd, the Panthers will visit The Flats looking for their second straight win over the Yellow Jackets. Overall, these two teams are pretty evenly matched but it may come down to a battle of who has the better game manger at quarterback. Kenny Picket is strong in limiting turnovers so far in his career but will the Yellow Jackets quarterback of choice this upcoming season be able to do the same? That’s a question that won’t be able to be answered for quite a while still. If the Yellow Jackets quarterback(s) can limit turnovers and make the easy passes, they’ll have a strong chance to beat the Panthers but until then, this game is a tossup in our mind and right now is too close to call.
Pittsburgh Season Preview:
Overall, we’re pretty pessimistic on the Panthers as we believe their overall lack of strong weapons on offense and a slowly improving but still struggling defense is too much for them to overcome in 2019. Right now, we project them to finish with a 4-8 record including a 2-6 record in conference play. Penn State and UCF highlight their non-conference schedule which should provide them with two losses while games against Ohio and Delaware should be easy victories for the program. There are a few tossup games on paper in our mind with games against the Yellow Jackets as noted above but also games against Virginia Tech and Boston College.
Overall, the Panthers in 2019 have a talented team but there’s a lot for Pat Narduzzi to replace in 2019. With Kenny Pickett as quarterback, the Panthers will have a quarterback who knows his strengths and weaknesses and will usually try to do not so much. Their offense needs to take a step forward in 2019 as it has taken drastic steps back since Matt Canada was offensive coordinator two seasons ago. Defensively, they have been improving each year under Narduzzi but the loss of a few key starters may be enough for the defense to take a step back in 2019. The secondary will be their defensive strength but can their front seven get the job done enough that the secondary isn’t left hanging? That will be the difference maker on defense in 2019 for the Panthers. In the end, it would more surprising if the Panthers took a step forward in 2019 than anything as they will probably need a few late season wins to get to bowl eligibility.