2023 Preseason Opponent Preview: Pitt Panthers

The November 4th game against Pitt is already being tabbed as the “trap game” for FSU. The Seminoles must make the long trip to Pittsburgh late in the year to take on a team that is usually sneaky good, so it understandably fits the narrative.

Pitt finished 11-3 and won their first ACC title in 2021. In 2022, Pitt was 17th in the preseason rankings, opened the season with a win over WVU, and took a really good Tennessee team to the wire but lost in overtime. Then three games later, Pitt inexplicably lost to a 1-3 Georgia Tech team at home despite being ranked 24th and a 22-point favorite. Pitt finished 9-4 with a quality bowl win over a UCLA team that was playing well.

Pitt has a lot of big losses to cover this season which explains why their 2023 win projection is only at 6.5 wins. However, Pitt usually has a tough defense and plays well at home going 36-17 over nine seasons under HC Pat Narduzzi. FSU won the last time the two teams met in Pittsburg and was the game Jameis Winston had his coming out party in 2013. Pitt has struggled against ranked competition under Narduzzi with an 8-18 record against top 25 teams. FSU is currently top 10 in the preseason polls and will hopefully still be there in November.

After losing QB Kenny Pickett and WR Jordan Addison, Pitt took a step back on offense in 2022, falling from 3rd to 44th in scoring offense. Pitt has dealt with a lack of consistency at quarterback since Pickett left. Three different players started a game last year and during the offseason former starter Kedon Slovis hit the portal and backup Nick Patti quit football altogether.

To cover the losses, they added former BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec who reunites with his old OC Frank Cignetti. They also added Penn State transfer Christian Veilleux who only had 35 passing attempts in 2 seasons. Nate Yarnell is the only QB returning that played a snap for Pitt last year. He had 14 passing attempts as a true freshman during his lone start against Western Michigan.

Jurkovec is an interesting player. He has the tools to be a good QB at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds with a strong arm. However, he has battled injury throughout his career and has yet to play an entire season without missing at least one game over the past five years. Jurkovec was asked to work a miracle last year playing QB behind a disastrous offensive line at BC, so it will be interesting to see what he does with time to throw.

2020 was Jurkovec’s best year under now Pitt OC Frank Cignetti while the two were at Boston College. In 10 games, he completed 205 passes (60.8%) for 2,558 yards with 17 TDs and 5 INTs. Personally, I’ve never been sold on Jurkovec being a game-changer at quarterback, but he’s finally got a decent situation to have success in.

Pitt has produced back-to-back 1,000-yard receivers who both departed the following year. Jared Wayne led the Panthers in receiving with 1,057 yards and 5 TDs last season but left for the NFL. They also lost their #5, #6, and #7 receivers, who combined for only 382 yards. Although they lost their top guy, Pitt does bring back their #2 WR Konata Mumpfield (551 YDS), #3 WR Bub Means (401 YDS), and #1 TE Gavin Bartholomew (283 YDS). They also added Florida transfer Daejon Reynolds who had 11 receptions for 244 yards last season with the Gators. Pitt brought back over 1,000 yards of production, but it was a top-heavy group, with Wayne leading by over 500 yards. They’ll need someone to step into the WR1 role in his absence. 

The losses continue at running back, with Israel Abanikanda leaving for the NFL. He was a 2nd team All-American who rushed for 1,431 yards (5.99 YPC) and 20 TDs! Any team in the country would have difficulty replacing that level of production. Their #3 back (274 YDS – 5.27 YPC) also departed for 2023.

Rodney Hammond Jr, their #2 back, returns after putting up 460 YDS (4.22 YPC) and 5 TDs. They also bring C’Bo Flemister back, who rushed for 221 yards and 2 TDs last season, and added LSU transfer Derrick Davis who had 11 carries for 57 yards (5.18 YPC).

Pitt had to battle injuries on the offensive line last season, which in turn helped them build some depth. They had ten players record over 230 snaps in 2022. They did lose first-team All-ACC OG Marcus Minor along with three other players who played 200+ snaps last season. However, the Panthers get three starters back, including a 3rd team All-ACC OG and a center who received an ACC honorable mention last year.

Looking at the Pittsburgh offense for 2023, they do bring in an experienced QB who has played in this offense. However, only 28.4% of their yardage from last year is back for 2023 in an offense that finished the season ranked 50th. Jurkovec can steady the ship at QB, but I’m not sure if he brings enough to make up for the lost production elsewhere.

2023 Pitt Football Schedule

Pat Narduzzi is a defensive-minded head coach who is a former Broyles Award winner that guided Michigan State to four top 8 defenses. It comes as no surprise that the Panthers typically have a solid defense to lean on, just as they did last year. Although they finished 51st in scoring defense (24.1 PPG), Pitt was top 25 in total defense, tackles for loss, and Interceptions. Pitt was also 2nd in sacks and finished with a top-10 rushing defense allowing under 100 yards per game. That’s impressive, considering they faced 3 top-25 offenses, two of which finished in the top 5.

Pitt’s defensive line was behind a lot of that success, but unfortunately for the Panthers, they lost all but one starter from the entire unit. The most notable was 1st team All-ACC DT Calijah Kancey, who led the team in TFLs. Pitt is known for having a quality defensive line, but it’ll be a rebuild up front for 2023. The Panthers have yet to take any defensive linemen from the portal, but they have some players with experience to build around. David Green, Tyler Bently, Devin Danielson, and Deandre Jules are all 5th-year Seniors who played 1,106 snaps last season. To give you an idea of the shoes that Kancey left to fill, he had 47 pressures in 2022. The four players we just named combined for 26 total pressures.

They don’t have quite as much experience to rebuild with at DE as the interior, but they have a couple of upperclassmen who played over 100 snaps in 2022. It appears they will be thin as far as experienced depth is concerned after losing over 1,250 snaps of experience from last season.

As we roll through this preview, Pitt has a similar theme of losing their top guy at each position, and linebacker continues that trend. Pitt must replace their #1 tackler SirVocea Dennis who led the rest of the team by 27 tackles. Dennis, a 1st-team All-ACC player, was tied for the lead in sacks and #2 in TFLs. They also lose their #4 tackler, but it’s not a total rebuild. Pitt returns 24 starts at linebacker between Shayne Simon (76.7 PFF) and Bangally Kamara (61.0 PFF), who are both veteran players. They also have Solomon DeShields (60.3 PFF), who was not a starter but played in all 13 games.

Pitt had the 77th-ranked passing defense last year despite facing four passing offenses ranked 99th or lower. When they faced more challenging competition against two top 15 passing offenses (Tenn & UNC), they allowed 325 and 388 yards. The Panthers will be replacing every safety that recorded a snap in 2022, including Erick Hallett II, who led the team in PBUs, tied for first in INTs, and received a 2nd team All-ACC selection. Brandon Hall is also gone and was an ACC honorable mention and Pitt’s #2 tackler. They did add a transfer at safety to help cover the losses. Donovan McMillan (57.5 PFF) comes in from Florida and is rated as a 4-star transfer, but only played 64 snaps on a bad defense last year.

Although they are starting over at safety, they bring back three redshirt seniors at corner. Marquis Williams (80.8 PFF) and MJ Devonshire (77.0 PFF) both earned ACC honorable mentions in 2022 and are back this year, along with AJ Woods (69.2 PFF), who started 5 games and played in all 13.

The Pitt defense lost some important pieces from the 2022 squad, but they have a lot of upperclassmen with experience to fill the void. It will be a question of whether those guys can replace the high-level players that left. Pitt always has a solid defense, so I don’t doubt they will again in 2023, but they have a lot to replace, just like the offense.

On special teams, Pitt must replace their KR on special teams, but MJ Devonshire was a 2nd team All-ACC specialist as their PR. K Ben Sauls was 83.3% on FGs last season and is back for 2023.

Pitt’s 11-win season in 2021 was the first double-digit win season for the Panthers since joining the ACC in 2013. They slipped to 9-4 last year after losing Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. This year they lost a lot of key pieces from both sides of the ball, which makes me feel better about this game.

At the same time, FSU must travel to Pitt later in the year. The average weather in Pittsburgh on November 4th is a high of 55 and a low of 37, so it could be a colder game. Pitt is also 4-0 in November the past two years which doesn’t make me feel good about this game when we already consider it a trap game. The Panthers will be coming off a road game at Notre Dame, and FSU has a rivalry game against Miami the following week.

FSU has a more talented roster across the board and a lot more returning production. With all the losses Pitt had from last year, as long as FSU can stay focused ahead of the rivalry game, and the weather is friendly, I don’t see why FSU shouldn’t be able to get a solid win on the road here. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, as Pitt is a program that’s been known to pull upsets. Just ask Clemson. Thanks for reading! Go Noles!

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