The Brawl is back. It's hard to put into words what that sentence means. It's hating Jordan Addison from a distance for winning the Biletnikoff almost a decade after Stedman Bailey was snubbed. It's bus rides to Heinz Field, and one of my buddies dumping a full big gulp on a chirping Pitt fan in late November. It's Chad Johnston to Zach Abraham, 69 yards from Amos Zereoue, and Rasheed Marshall to John Pennington. It's "We just gotta run faster", and Pat White mocking the panther. It’s 13-9.
There's joy. There's heartbreak. There's hatred. Ahhh, the hatred. You can almost hear Emperor Palpatine. These are things that all the best rivalries have, and they're things that have been missing from our lives these past 11 years. Needless to say I can't wait for Thursday.
Date: September 1st, 2022
Kickoff: 7:00PM EST
Heinz Field Acrisure Stadium - Pittsburgh, PA
Tickets: General Public
Online Streaming: ESPN app with a valid ESPN+ subscription
Radio Announcers: Tony Caridi (PBP), Dwight Wallace (analyst), and Jed Drenning (sideline)
Reminder: It is against site policy to post links to illegal streams in the comments.
Spread: WVU +6.5 on FanDuel
ML: WVU +225, Pitt -280
Over/Under: 51.5 (-115 over, -105 under)
I'm obviously on us to win straight up, but 51.5 feels kinda high for two teams with good defenses and question marks on offense.
Sunny - high 80/57 low - Wind 7 mph
Should be right around 75 at kickoff. Absolutely pristine conditions, gang. Just a great day to have a day.
Where are they from? Pittsburgh, PA, just 75 short miles up Interstate 79.
All-time Series: 40-61-3. Pitt owns a healthy advantage in the all-time series, but things have flipped in the modern era with the good guys winning 15 of 22 contests since 1990.
The Last Time We Played: West Virginia 21-20 Pitt. The 2011 Brawl was a poorly played football game, but it was also one of our more satisfying wins this century. Pitt jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead, but the Mountaineer defense came alive in the second half, holding the Panthers to just 80 yards and a field goal. Sending them packing with that absolute sack party in the last two minutes is one of my favorite memories at Mountaineer Field.
Head coach: Pat Narduzzi (8th season, 53-37). The Nard Dog has Pitt trending in the right direction, though it should be noted that 14 of those 16 wins above .500 can be accounted for in conference play. Must be nice to play in the ACC Coastal.
2022 record: 0-0. The Panthers obviously haven't played yet this season, but last year's 11-3 ACC Championship-winning campaign was objectively their best in 40 years.
NUMBERS THAT MAY INTEREST YOU
280 - Pressures generated by Pitt last year. That's 20 per game, which was on par with Oklahoma State, Georgia, and Alabama. A huge early test for our offensive line. However...
3.6 - 20+ yard passing plays allowed per game by the Panthers last year, good for 99th in FBS. Their 9.9% explosive pass rate allowed was a bit more respectable, but if we can give JT some time there are big plays to be had in the passing game.
33 - 20+ yard receptions for the departed Jordan Addison last year. That number led the country, accounted for 43% of Pitt's total, and was only 13 shy of the 46 we managed as a team. For additional context, Pitt's 2022 opening day trio of Jared Wayne, Bub Means, and Konata Mumpfield combined for just 29. Just a ton of explosiveness to replace in the passing game.
39.1/32.8 - Kedon Slovis' passing grade and completion percentage when pressured last year, down from 90.2 and 72.5% when kept clean. Those latter numbers are really good, but the former ranked 58th and 68th among 74 qualifying P5 quarterbacks.
KEYS TO THE GAME
This one's crucial for a number of reasons.
First, I just mentioned above how good Pitt has been at generating pressure. 20 per game is a lot, and most of the guys who were responsible for that havoc last year will be across the lines from us this Thursday. Neutralizing or at the very least mitigating their greatest strength would be huge.
Adjacent to that is how much better JT performs when he's kept clean. At his best (in 2020) Daniels' 91.3 passing grade was top 15 nationally among qualifying FBS QBs, while his 49.1 against pressure ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack. We're not going to walk out of the Ack with a win if we see too much of that latter version.
And finally, there's Pitt's aforementioned vulnerability to vertical pass plays. The Panthers gave up a ton of explosive pass plays in their quest to wreak havoc last year, and the 150 10+ yarders they allowed actually ranked second worst in FBS.
Throw it all together and I don't think there's any arguing that our offensive line against their defensive line is the single most important match up in this game. If I'm Pitt, I'm looking at what Oklahoma State did to us last year and simply trying to replicate it. That's what we should be expecting, and whether or not we’re able to handle it better on Thursday than we did against the Pokes will be a good indicator how much we've grown as a unit.
STOP THE RUN
The Panthers were happy to run the ball to kill games last year, but they threw it almost 59% of the time in the first half. However, with Pickett and Addison gone, a new offensive coordinator coming in, and all of their running backs and offensive linemen back, I think it's very likely that they lean much more heavily on the ground attack in 2022, which means that we're going to have to deal with that to stop them.
There's plenty of cause for concern there, starting with the returnees mentioned above. Israel Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond, and Vincent Davis combined for 1,756 yards on 366 attempts last year with 16 touchdowns, 95 forced missed tackles, and 51 explosives. I don’t think any of them are world beaters, but they're an objectively good group of backs and they're running behind the same 5 (or 6, or 7) linemen that they did a year ago. That means something.
However, there are also a couple of reasons to feel optimistic about slowing them down. The first is our defensive front, which was one of the better groups in the Big 12 last year and figures to be in that same ballpark this year.
The second is our linebacking corps, which has upgraded its athleticism and physicality with Lee Kpogba and Lance Dixon.
Perhaps the most important reason though is the absence of Pickett and Addison. One of the simple truths of football is that it's easier to run the ball when everyone you play is more worried about you throwing it. Just ask Kennedy McKoy, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry with Will Grier and Co in 2018 but just 3.3 with Austin Kendall a year later. Pitt's not going through the same kind of offensive reset that we did between 2018 and 2019, but I do expect the loss of a Heisman finalist and Biletnikoff winner to give us a bit more confidence in stacking the box than their opponents had a year ago.
A couple of quick observations here:
- Pitt's OL ranked 23rd out of 64 P5 teams in pass block efficiency last year, but their 118 pressures allowed ranked 58th.
- Kenny Pickett ranked 8th nationally last year with 400 yards on 50 scrambles. By contrast, Kedon Slovis scrambled just 8 times for 54 yards.
- Time to Throw, Time to Throw while scrambling, and yards and touchdowns produced before and after 2.5 seconds all point to Pickett being more and more dangerous the longer he held onto the ball. Those same metrics point to the opposite being true for Slovis.
Conclusions: Kenny Pickett's scrambling ability and backyard playmaking skills made Pitt's offense, and especially its offensive line, look better than it maybe should've last year, and unfortunately (for Pitt) Kedon Slovis doesn’t possess the scrambling ability or backyard playmaking skills that Pickett does.
That's a lot of words to say that I think Pitt's offense is going to take a pretty significant step backwards this year due to the downgrade at quarterback. So much of what was good about them last year (Pickett just making plays) is gone, and the next man up is neither as good nor is he good in the same ways as the guy that left. Slovis throws an accurate ball when he's in rhythm but he struggles in the off-script situations where Pickett thrived, and I think that applying pressure and making him uncomfortable needs to be a point of emphasis on Thursday.
HOW AFRAID SHOULD WE BE?
8 out of 10. Opening the season on the road against a defending P5 conference champion is daunting. I think the rivalry aspect swings things back in our favor a bit, as does the fact that Mountaineer Nation will be well represented in the stadium, but make no mistake that this is one of the most difficult games on our schedule.
The one thing I know for sure about Thursday is that the Old Gold and Blue is going to dominate the parking lot. We're talking about an absolute massacre. You know the guy who stands on his porch watching the tornado get closer, almost as if he doesn't realize that it's headed his way? That guy is the average Pitt fan this week. Mountaineer Nation is the storm. We will be out en masse and will have already had a day by the time those guys are getting off work. There's no way Pitt is matching our energy.
Moving into the stadium is where things get interesting. I applaud the reigning ACC Champions for a successful 2021 campaign, but let's be honest here - Pitt was the class of the worst P5 conference in America. They won 11 games, sure, but they also went just 3-3 against teams with winning records. They lost to 8-5 Western Michigan and 7-5 Miami at home. Actual good teams don't lose multiple games like that. Basically what Pitt did is they beat 7-6 Tennessee, they beat the worst team Clemson has fielded in more than a decade, and then they beat Wake Forest to win the conference. And that's it. 11 wins was some next level smoke and mirrors bullshit. Now somebody has to win the games, and to Pitt's credit they did, but forgive me if I don't hold their 11 in the same esteem as I do Oklahoma's.
Fast forward to this year. The individual offensive brilliance that they leaned on so heavily last year is gone. In its wake are the makings of a decent offense, but certainly not one that will approach the 42 points per game that they averaged last year. The defense will be good, and I expect the defensive line especially to be one of the best that we play, but they're also extremely feast or famine. They create a ton of havoc, but leave themselves open on the back end to do so. This is a getable football team, gang, and I think we're equipped to get them.