EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of a 12-part series previewing Marshall’s 12 football opponents for the 2020 season. Today, we look at the second opponent on Marshall’s schedule: Pitt.
HUNTINGTON — When looking at the 2020 season for Pitt, one thing stands out about the Panthers: there is plenty of returning experience from a team that won eight games last season.
Pitt enters the 2020 season returning 17 starters to the mix, including many on a defense that should be among the nation’s best.
Last season, Pitt upended UCF, whom Marshall fell to in the Gasparilla Bowl while also finishing 4-4 in the ACC despite a disappointing finish to the regular season.
Legitimately, the Panthers could be a top-25 team under head coach Pat Narduzzi this season, but that will depend on how the offense progresses.
Pitt’s 2019 team ranked No. 15 in total defense, including being No. 12 nationally against the run behind a front-seven that wreaked havoc for the opposition.
When it came to pressure, there weren’t many teams better than the Panthers, who ranked third nationally in sacks with 51 while allowing just 108 yards per game rushing.
The heart of the Pitt defense is the defensive line, led by Jalen Twyman (41 tackles, 10.5 sacks) and Patrick Jones (43 tackles, 8.5 sacks). Those two alone are enough to change an offensive gameplan.
The Panthers also return a pair of linebackers in Cam Bright and Phil Campbell to aid in the second level, but the back-end of the defense also provides plenty of leadership with Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford at safety.
Both players are game-changers with Ford amassing 97 tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles while Hamlin added 84 tackles and an interception.
If the Panthers can stay injury-free, the defense has the potential to be one of the nation’s top units with several NFL-caliber players.
It is a defense that could have Pitt in the heart of the ACC race, should the offense be able to sustain itself at a better clip than 2019.
Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett returns to the fold after a year in which he was good, but not great and the Panthers featured a vanilla attack.
Pickett threw for 3,098 yards and completed 62 percent of his passes, but he had 13 touchdowns with nine interceptions and there was no big-play ability coming from the Pitt offense.
Not all of that was on Pickett, however.
The Panthers were abysmal in the rushing attack, averaging just 118 yards per game, which forced a one-dimensional offense and also took away from what was a great defense.
There will be a Davis rushing the football for Pitt in 2020, but which is unknown. A.J. Davis led the team with 530 yards on the ground last season, but Vincent Davis could log the most carries after seeing a bulk of action in the bowl win.
Regardless of who gets the nod, that person will run behind an offensive line that must improve for the Pitt offense to take the next step.
Center Jimmy Morrisey is an All-American candidate and returning All-ACC first-team selection. Morrisey headlines a group that returns four of five starters, but needs to develop — especially at the tackle spots — to get the offense moving.
Pickett will have a pair of solid targets returning in Taysir Mack (63-736, 3 TDs) and Shocky Jacques-Louis (23-348, 2 TDs), but Maurice Ffrench is now gone, leaving a near-100 catch hole in the receiving corps.
The special teams unit returns a bulk of its production with Australian punter Kirk Christodoulou bringing back a 42.9 average to weight heavily in the field position game.
Kicker Alex Kessman also returns, but needs to improve on his 22-of-31 performance from a year ago — especially if the offense continues to struggle to reach the end zone.
Pitt’s schedule is tough in ACC play with road games at Miami and Florida State looming, but the Panthers get Virginia Tech at home while starting with three of their first four games at home — the only road contest being a Sept. 12 matchup at Marshall.
Given the amount of returning talent and its early schedule, Pitt could go 4-0 to start the year if it can get past Marshall in Huntington.
Still, a rough middle of the season in ACC play will dictate the success or failure of the team.
Top 25 isn’t out of the question, but given that middle stretch with Miami (Florida), Notre Dame, Florida State and Virginia Tech in a six-week span, a 6-6 record isn’t out of the realm of possibility, either.
Undoubtedly, the Panthers will look to grind out games and put the onus on their defense to get them on the winning side of the coin again.