In the final 3-2-1 Column of 2022, we’ve got a lot to discuss, from the year that was to some key players we’ll be watching in the Sun Bowl and a lot more.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
The year in review
Whatever 2022 has been for you, it has been something of a mixed bag for Pitt athletics.
The Panthers’ nine team sports combined to post an above-.500 record of 141-120-8 and a much less aesthetically-pleasing mark of 56-82-5 in ACC games/matches.
And a whole lot of that success came from the women’s volleyball team. Dan Fisher’s group continues to lead the way as Pitt’s top performing program, going 31-4 overall and 17-1 in the ACC this year, claiming another conference championship and beating Wisconsin in Madison to advance to the Final Four before bowing out to Louisville in the rubber match of a heated season series.
The volleyball team wasn’t the only one with success this year; both soccer programs also reached new heights in 2022, and Randy Waldrum and Jay Vidovich deserve a ton of credit for the work they’ve done with Pitt’s women’s and men’s soccer teams, respectively.
The Pitt women went 14-5-3 overall and 5-3-2 in the ACC, setting program records for total wins and ACC wins in the process while advancing to both the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
Meanwhile, the Pitt men turned a 12-5-5 regular season into a postseason tear that saw the Panthers advance to the College Cup for the second time in the last three seasons.
Those three programs – volleyball and the two soccers – did more than enough to carry the athletic department’s success, but there were obviously some down points.
Men’s basketball, for instance. The Panthers are playing well right now, off to a 9-4 start overall and a 2-0 ACC mark so far this season, but that doesn’t overshadow what they did in the first few months of 2022. In January, February and March, Jeff Capel’s group had more transfer departures (seven) than wins (six).
The Pitt women’s program didn’t do much better in the first three months of the year, winning just two of its 17 games played in January, February and March. Lance White’s group is 7-6 so far this season, so that’s an improvement, but it still leaves the Panthers with a 9-21 overall record in the calendar year of 2022.
Of course, while Pitt football won more than it lost in 2022, Pat Narduzzi’s group still fell short of expectations. 8-4 needs to be the floor for the football program; by that standard, the Panthers were on the floor in 2022, and they left at least two wins on the field, although they have a chance to get a ninth win in the Sun Bowl this afternoon.
Pitt’s baseball and softball programs continued to struggle to find their footing in the ACC this year. The baseball team went 29-27 overall but 13-16 in the ACC despite advancing to the semifinals of the conference tournament. The softball team won just two games in ACC play, posting a 14-27 overall record and a 2-20 mark in conference games.
The women’s lacrosse program was a bright spot. In its first year of existence, the team went 9-10, won a game in the challenging ACC and won another one in the ACC Tournament. That’s not too shabby for Emily Boissennault as she guides a brand-new program – never an easy task, particularly in the gauntlet that is ACC lacrosse.
Meanwhile, the athletic department broke ground – in practical fashion, if not ceremonial – on the new Victory Heights facilities that will house volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics next to the Petersen Events Center in a few years.
There were certainly plenty of ups and downs along the way beyond the wins and losses. Whether it was the twists and turns of recruiting or the never-ending give and take of the transfer portal, things never got boring this year.
This was always be the year that saw Jordan Addison leave Pitt after winning the Biletnikoff. No one will forget where they were when they first heard that bit of news (I was sitting in the airport waiting for a delayed flight to Newark).
With that story in mind, I imagine 2022 will be the year we point to as the real crossover into the transfer portal/NIL era. Yes, it happened plenty in 2021, but that Addison transfer was eye-opening – not only for those of us in Pittsburgh, but around the country.
So that was 2022: a year that saw several Pitt programs achieve unprecedented success while one of the two biggest programs continued to flounder and the other underperformed while it tried to adapt to the new landscape of college sports.
We’ll see what 2023 brings.
Players we’re looking forward to seeing
This will probably become an annual ritual:
Listing the players we’re looking forward to seeing on the field in a bowl game after opt-outs, transfers and early departures for the NFL leave the team scrambling to refill its depth chart. I don’t really see things going backward here; opt-outs and pre-bowl transfers will likely only increase, so we’re going to have even more of these discussions in the coming years.
And before we get into some of players we’re looking forward to seeing, I’ll say this:
For all the talk of opt-outs killing interest in the bowls, I think one unintended upside is that you will get to see a few guys who haven’t been on the field much this season. You’ll see that third-team running back or young defensive end get an opportunity that they haven’t had yet; fans always say things like “Let’s see what the young guys can do” – well, more and more, the bowl games will give you a chance to do exactly that.
So who are we looking forward to seeing in the Sun Bowl?
There are a few guys who will step into prominent positions, but they’re not exactly new. Nick Patti, for instance, will be the starting quarterback, and while there’s a chance that he plays well enough to call into question the decision to start Kedon Slovis all season, we more or less know who Nick Patti is and what he can do.
Ditto for Rodney Hammond. He has shown enough in the last two seasons that we pretty much know who he is. Patti and Hammond will be leading the charge on offense against UCLA, but they’re known commodities, to some extent.
More unknown are the players who will be lining up at defensive end today. After John Morgan’s transfer and Deslin Alexandre’s opt-out, Habakkuk Baldonado is the lone senior starter heading into this one, and his status is up in the air after he missed the final two games of the regular season and doesn’t appear to have been practicing in El Paso.
We know Dayon Hayes will get the start at one of the end spots, but there are a couple candidates for the other one – probably Bam Brima or Chris Maloney. I’m interested in seeing a lot of Hayes and Brima for next season, but I’m also looking at two younger guys: redshirt freshman Nahki Johnson and true freshman Samuel Okunlola.
Johnson has played 36 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus, with half of those coming in the Rhode Island game. But he was on the field for 15 snaps in the wins at Virginia and Miami and had a couple pressures in those games.
Okunlola has played in three games – two on defense, one on special teams – and most recently saw five snaps in the win at Miami, where he had one pressure. He and Johnson are on the depth chart for the Sun Bowl after Morgan and Alexandre left, and it seems likely that they’ll get on the field.
I’m looking forward to that, because those two are part of the future at defensive end for Pitt. Okunlola was the subject of rave reviews in the spring and summer before he got hurt, and I think he’s got a really bright future.
I’m interested in some of the linebackers, too. When SirVocea Dennis opted out of the Sun Bowl, it caused some shifting: Shayne Simon moved full-time to middle linebacker, Tylar Wiltz moved full-time to Money linebacker and freshman Kyle Louis showed up as the backup Star linebacker on the two-deep.
Louis was hurt in training camp but has played in three games on special teams; now we might see him on the field playing with the defense. I’m interested in that.
I’m also interested in Brandon George. He’s not a young player, but after rehabbing an injury that limited him to three games this season, he’s back as the top reserve middle linebacker; given that he’s probably going to be the starter there next season, his performance today will be worth watching.
Finally, I’m really interested in the boundary safeties. Brandon Hill opted out after declaring for the NFL, and now redshirt freshman Javon McIntyre is the listed starter ahead of redshirt freshman Stephon Hall. McIntyre had a big game in the regular-season finale at Miami, and if he can build off that against UCLA, it will bode well for the future of the position starting in 2023.
So this should be an interesting one from a personnel perspective. Of course, those young guys will be getting a trial-by-fire if UCLA’s star quarterback and running back actually play.
Speaking of which…
UCLA is defying the odds
Picture, if you will, a football team in the year 2022 entering its bowl game with all of its roster available. It would be like traveling through another dimension – a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind, a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Opt-Out Zone.
It’s almost impossible to believe, but somehow Chip Kelly and the UCLA Bruins have convinced the world – or anyone who’s paying attention – that the home sidelines at the Sun Bowl will be full.
No early NFL departures. No transfers. No opt-outs.
Of course, UCLA do have early NFL departures. And the Bruins already have a number of transfers, too. But as we sit here a few hours from the game, seemingly the entire UCLA roster is present and accounted for in the west Texas town of El Paso.
That includes star quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and star running back Zach Charbonnet. It even includes a number of players who have announced they are transferring. They’re all in El Paso and, if we are to believe Chip Kelly, they’re all playing today.
I’m totally flummoxed by this, and I said as much during my conversation with Tracy McDannald from the Rivals UCLA site earlier this week. It defies everything we think we know about college football in 2022.
Everybody’s playing in a non-playoff bowl game? Really?
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Tracy really believes it either, and he seems like he believes there is some gamesmanship at play. Charbonnet, for instance, missed two games this season, but Tracy said that the Bruins’ star running back still suited up for those – and stood on the sidelines in his uniform the entire game.
So we could see that in the Sun Bowl, too: Charbonnet, who rushed for 1,359 yards and 14 touchdowns this season while averaging seven yards per carry, could very well put on a uniform and even go through warmups before spending the afternoon sipping Gatorade and pondering the way Sun Bowl Stadium is carved into the side of a mountain.
Chip Kelly does seem like a particularly cagey guy. I wouldn’t put it past him to instruct his departing players to make no mention of the Sun Bowl in their social media announcements, be they transfers or NFL Draft entries. And true to form, none of them mention it, one way or the other.
It’s kind of funny to think that, in this particular matchup, the more transparent head coach will be on the Pitt sidelines.
Or maybe Chip Kelly isn’t being cagey at all. Maybe his guys really are committed to playing in this game. UCLA hasn’t appeared in a bowl game since 2017 and hasn’t won one since 2015. Plus, the Bruins have reached 10 wins just nine times in school history; winning the Sun Bowl gives this year’s team a chance to make it 10. Maybe that really does matter to these players. Maybe they really do want to put their names in history. Maybe it really is about the name on the front of the jersey.
We’ll find out in a few hours.
TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE
Will Dior Johnson play at Pitt?
Admit it: this question has been in the back – and sometimes the front – of your mind ever since Dior Johnson committed to Pitt back in June.
That’s why it was a big deal when he made it to campus later that summer, and every time Pitt posted a video from practice that included even the briefest clip of the four-star freshman, it was news.
“Look! There’s Dior! He’s with the team!”
I think Pitt fans can be forgiven for overreacting to those confirmations, because it certainly felt like getting him committed was only the first step. It’s not fair to hold Johnson’s history against him, but the pattern of movement definitely created an atmosphere of seeing-is-believing when it came to the likelihood of him playing a game for the Panthers.
Everything seemed to be on track until October when Johnson was arrested on felony domestic assault charges. We all know where the story went from there: the charges were eventually reduced to misdemeanors, Johnson pleaded guilty to those misdemeanors, probation and counseling were ordered and, eventually, he was reinstated as a member of the Pitt basketball program.
That last bit happened this week, which is why we’re talking about it now. And as part of the announcement of his reinstatement, Pitt also said that Johnson is likely to redshirt.
It’s an interesting decision to sit Johnson for the season. There’s a PR hit inherent in bringing back a student-athlete who committed the actions that he admitted to committing; to do so with no intention of actually putting him on the court is even more curious. Perhaps it’s a principled stand, a yearlong suspension by another name that will give Jeff Capel a chance to help Johnson grow on the sidelines.
Either way, if it sticks and Johnson doesn’t play this year, I don’t think it’s crazy to ask the question we led with:
Will he ever play at Pitt?
I don’t necessarily mean that I’m assuming he’ll transfer out of frustration at redshirting. If he was opposed to that plan, I don’t know why he would stick around for the spring semester in the first place.
But there was always a feeling that Pitt had a limited clock with Johnson. Again, I don’t want to hold his history against him, but a young man who has followed the path Johnson has taken over the last four years carries at least some amount of flight risk until he shows he can stay put for a bit.
I think that if you polled Pitt fans in August, the most they would have realistically hoped for was one season, with anything beyond that being gravy. Now, with the redshirt plan publicly announced, that one year might come and go without Johnson ever seeing the court.
Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe Johnson will redshirt this year, grow as a person and a player and come back to lead the Panthers in the 2023-24 season. Maybe the situation will all end in a much more positive light than it has garnered for the last three months.
But most Pitt fans probably took the seeing-is-believing approach to his first season in Pittsburgh, and this latest development is going to keep that mindset hanging over everything until he actually steps onto the court.
Will my streak continue?
Get ready for some hard-hitting analysis here:
Pitt’s got a better chance than you might think in the Sun Bowl – largely because I won’t be there.
Look, sometimes we have to have a little fun in these columns, so come along for a ride down memory lane.
In January 2011, I covered my first bowl game. I started covering Pitt for this site in 2005 and, well, there weren’t any bowl games to cover those first few years.
When Dave Wannstedt finally broke through the six-win ceiling and got an invite to the Sun Bowl after the 2008 season, I stayed back in Pittsburgh. Ditto the next year when Pitt went to Charlotte.
Finally, I made a bowl trip after the 2010 season, and it took me to Birmingham where I covered the first BBVA Compass Bowl. Under interim head coach Phil Bennett, Pitt won that game by beating Kentucky.
A year later, I went back to Birmingham for the second BBVA Compass Bowl. That time, interim head coach Keith Patterson lost to SMU.
And one year later, I was there once again to watch non-interim head coach Paul Chryst lose to Ole Miss.
After the 2013 season, I decided three trips to Birmingham were enough and Detroit was close enough to Birmingham (spiritually, at least) that I would skip the pizza bowl – missing a win and Chad Voytik’s breakout.
I learned my lesson and went to the Armed Forces Bowl in Jan. 2015. That proved to be good for an opportunity to meet Pat Narduzzi but bad for the result of the game. The Military Bowl against Navy 11 months later didn’t produce a win either.
In 2016 I figured it would be a cool experience to cover a game at Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t cool; it was cold, especially in an open-air press box in December in the Bronx, which made it a lot of fun to type on my laptop.
There was no bowl in 2017, but I made the trip to El Paso for the 2018 Sun Bowl. I couldn’t even find a good taco spot to eat at after that game (on New Year’s Eve, no less).
Continuing my tradition of not going to Detroit, I sent one James Hammett out to cover the pizza bowl that didn’t have a pizza sponsor on the day after Christmas 2019, and he got to see a win in that one.
Finally, and most recently, I went to Atlanta last year for the Peach Bowl, because who can skip a New Year’s Day bowl game, right?
So if you’re keeping track here, I have covered eight of Pitt’s last 10 bowl games in person, and the Panthers are 1-7 In those eight games – including seven losses in a row.
Now, I know that my presence had nothing to do with those losses. They were brought on by, in various instances, a team of coaches and players who didn’t simply didn’t care (2011); a team that had serious culture issues (2012); a fluke fourth quarter (2014); a superior ranked opponent (2015); at least three key injuries (2016); a punchless offense (2018); and a third-string quarterback (2021).
Pitt has won two bowl games since that first trip to Birmingham, and I wasn’t there for either of them. And I haven’t watched a Pitt bowl loss on TV since the 3-0 Sun Bowl. So I’ll be watching this year’s Sun Bowl from the Panther-Lair.com offices in western Pennsylvania. We’ll see if the cosmic forces notice.
Pitt will split today
For the final 3-2-1 Column of the year, let’s make one last prediction and draw it right down the middle, giving myself the best chance of getting one right (maybe the only one?) this year.
Pitt will split today’s games.
Just don’t ask me which one the Panthers will win and which one they will lose. I find that, generally speaking, the less specific I am with predictions, the more likely they are to come true.
I do like Pitt’s chances against North Carolina in the first game of the day. At 9-4, the Tar Heels have fallen quite far from their preseason No. 1 ranking, but that’s not to say they are bereft of talent. Armando Bacot, Caleb Love and RJ Davis make for a dangerous trio that is not to be trifled with; Pitt’s defense will be tested by those guys, and I’m particularly concerned about the matchup with Bacot and Federiko Federiko.
But I think UNC is probably also concerned about Pitt’s three-point shooting. While the Panthers are among the best and most prolific – and those are both equally important – three-point shooting teams in the ACC, the Tar Heels have been among the most vulnerable to three-point shooting. UNC ranks at the bottom of the conference in three-point percentage defense and three-point baskets allowed, and that issue has cost the Tar Heels in their losses this season.
UNC has lost four games this season. Indiana was one of them and the Hoosiers only shot 3-of-13 from three, but in the other three losses – Iowa State, Alabama and Virginia Tech – the Tar Heels allowed their opponents to shoot 41.5% from outside.
If Pitt shoots 41.5% today, I think the Panthers win. I actually think just getting over 35% from deep will be enough to win this one due to the high volume of three-point shots Jeff Capel’s team has been taking.
Shooting can always come and go; some nights, the shots just don’t fall. But I’m betting on them falling today.
I’m a little less confident about the Sun Bowl, largely due to personnel. At full strength, I think Pitt can give UCLA a real game. But the Panthers are not at full strength, as we know, and that’s especially true on defense. Playing without Calijah Kancey, SirVocea Dennis, Brandon Hill, John Morgan, Deslin Alexandre and (probably) Habakkuk Baldonado makes things particularly difficult against a pretty good UCLA defense.
Like I said earlier, I’m looking forward to seeing the younger players, but I don’t know if that bodes well for the chances of slowing down the Bruins (especially if they actually have everyone playing, as Chip Kelly has claimed).
Offensively, I don’t know what to expect. I’m pulling for Nick Patti, since it would be great to see him finish his Pitt career with a win. But I’ll need to see this offense play well before I believe that it can play well, and even if it plays well, can it play well enough to score enough to stay ahead of a UCLA offense that might have some matchup advantages in its favor?
I’m not so sure.
So my prediction is that today will start off strong with a nice home win over UNC but close on a down note with a loss to UCLA.
Which pretty much guarantees the opposite will happen.
Place your bets accordingly and happy new year.