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Life after James Conner and Nathan Peterman has been rough on Pittsburgh

The Panthers look like they’ll miss their first bowl game in a while.

Pittsburgh v Clemson Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

After a pair of eight-win seasons under Pat Narduzzi, the Pittsburgh Panthers are cratering in 2017. Wha happen? There are some obvious reasons: offensive coordinator Matt Canada left for LSU, standout quarterback Nathan Peterman graduated, and stud running back James Conner opted to skip his senior season. Turns out it’s not easy to replace all three of these pieces.

Recovering from that sort of turnover is about chance and circumstance: is the next guy ready? How well do you recruit on a regular basis? The best programs in the country are more likely to avoid caving the way Pittsburgh has this season, but even considering Pitt’s middle class status, well, this is a rough case ...

Pitt's offense then and now

Pitt O Yds/Play (nat'l rank) Yds/Carry Yds/PassAtt PPG
Pitt O Yds/Play (nat'l rank) Yds/Carry Yds/PassAtt PPG
2016 6.7 (13) 5.4 (21) 8.9 (12) 40.9 (10)
2017 5.2 (97) 3.3 (116) 7.2 (75) 24.3 (96)

Explosiveness and an ability to finish drives inside the 40 with touchdowns made Pitt’s offense elite last season. This year, the Panthers are among the least explosive offenses in the country and they’ve regressed back to the national average in points per drive inside the 40. And the ground game has been blasted to smithereens by Conner’s absence.

Pitt is 96th in explosiveness on running plays, 116th in opportunity rate (this means the offensive line is doing a poor job of creating the initial crease, basically), and 100th in power success rate (how often a team converts 3rd/4th-and-2 for a first down or TD).

Pitt’s ground game has been so reliable, it is averaging about nine more pass attempts per game this season than it did a year ago—with far less credible quarterbacks running the show.

The Panthers are in a tough spot with that—and they’ve lost USC transfer QB Max Browne for several weeks—which makes it easier to see why the offense has crumbled. Pair a substandard running game with average-to-replacement-level FBS quarterbacks and there are not usually a lot of fun times to be had.

If you are to come remotely close to surviving these circumstances—define surviving however you will within this football context—then you are going to need a corresponding improvement on the defensive side, or an incredible amount of luck on the field.

Pat Narduzzi made his name as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, where his Spartans defenses helped the program achieve an impressive run of success. Since he became Pitt’s head coach, he has been incapable of rebuilding the Panthers in that same image.

The Panthers were at best mediocre defensively in 2016, and by pretty much all statistical accounts, they’ve been worse in 2017. This is poor timing. And this is how the bottom falls out on what had been a consistent yet unremarkable bowl team over the last half decade.