By the (Advanced) Numbers: Pitt's Premier Passing

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett has put up gaudy statistics, well above his career averages this season. However, Virginia Tech might have the right mix of defensive strengths to force him back down to earth.

[Pitt Athletics]

Following the loss to Notre Dame, Justin Fuente acknowledged poor decision-making late in the game. Two plays in particular were potential game-changers: the decision to punt on 4th-and-1 tied late in the game, and the decision to try for the 2-point conversion even after a false start backed the team up to the 8 yard line. So did the head coach make the right call on each?

Let's begin with the 4th down call. At the time, the game was tied 29-29 with about two minutes left on the clock and the Hokies had the ball on their own 27-yard-line. On their previous drive, in only a-minute-29 the Fighting Irish moved the ball 75 yards in 7 plays. That would make the "feel of the game" judgment call easy — don't punt and give Notre Dame a chance to kick a field goal with little, if any, time remaining. But how about the analytics?

Fortunately the CFB 4th Down Bot on Twitter provided the analysis:

Play choices with a near-16% swing in win probability don't come around too often, and in this case the Hokies chose the losing side. The analytics agree with common sense: Fuente should have tried his chances gaining the yard and moving the ball into field goal range for a likely game winner.

But should the game have been tied in the first place?

At the end of the 3rd quarter, the Hokies scored on a pick-six to take a one-point lead. Fuente opted to try for a 2-point conversion, but a false start backed the team up to the 8-yard-line. Fuente still opted for the 2-point conversion but after the game expressed regret, saying "pride and pissed-offishness" got the better of him.

To examine the choice, let's assume Notre Dame will start the subsequent drive on their own 25-yard line and look at their estimated win probabilities from Pro Football Reference for various Hokie Leads:

VT Lead Win Probability
1 50.70%
2 56.50%
3 62.10%

Assuming the extra point kick has a 98% chance of being made, the expected win probability for kicking is 56.4%. To beat that by going for the 2-point conversion, the odds of successfully converting would have to be 51% or higher. I think later in the game the advantage of the 3-point lead would make going for it a no-brainer, but in this case Fuente was probably right to regret the call.

But enough with regretful calls from last week — it's time to look forward to the surprisingly good Pittsburgh Panthers. Hokie fans know that an average Pitt team can beat even great Virginia Tech squads, but can a great Pitt team beat an average Virginia Tech one? Nothing about the series is logical so it is a question worth asking...

Where the Season Stands

Virginia Tech is currently 3-2. The actual and predicted score difference and odds of winning each game are:

The odds of each possible regular season win total are now:

While the Hokies will still probably finish bowl eligible, the kind of record that would unquestionably secure Justin Fuente in Blacksburg (at least 9 wins) looks unlikely at this point. Program defenders could easily point to the fact that Virginia Tech is 11 points away from a 5-0 record. However, those 11 points would not alter the FPI rating of the team a whole lot, which it currently sits at 45th. In other words, 5-0 would look like a great resume, but it wouldn't make a meaningful impact on the predictions moving forward which paint a picture of another unimpressive ACC showing.

Based on FPI, the potential season conclusion odds for each ACC team are:

Clemson may be having a down season, but by the rules SOME TEAM has to win the conference. Right now that's Pitt, and the Panthers are currently estimated to have about a 45% chance of winning the ACC. If heading into the season you had Pitt as the most likely ACC winner, get yourself to a sportsbook ASAP and send me your picks while you're at it.

Of course, Virginia Tech defeating the Panthers this weekend would certainly shake those odds up quite a bit...

Hokie Highs...

Opposing passers beware: the Hokies rank 2nd nationally in opponent interception % at 5.56%:

For every 18 passes opponents have thrown, Virginia Tech has intercepted one. Jermaine Waller is tied for 1st nationally with 4 interceptions on the season. Only Richmond escaped without throwing one, and they finished the game with 23 passes for 77 total yards. Sam Howell has thrown just 2 interceptions on 153 attempts since the Hokies picked him off three times.

Thus far this season, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett has only thrown one interception in 168 attempts. Prior to 2021, his career average was 1 in every 47 attempts.

Rankings and Computer Predictions

The computer rankings for each team:

While computers generally agree Pittsburgh is easily the better team, there is quite a bit of spread in the Panthers' rankings. Virginia Tech is a 5-point underdog, giving them a 35.4% chance of winning.

Next is a look at the overall FPI rating and offensive versus defensive efficiencies:

FPI, a system I believe to be among, if not the most accurate prediction system out there, really favors the Panthers. Not just as a Coastal favorite, but the ACC favorite and possibly even a playoff team (note I said POSSIBLY and am not predicting Pitt to make the playoffs). But the dataset FPI is working off of largely consists of bottom-half teams and we don't really know how the team will play against better competition; while they rank 11th in FPI, the team ranks 27th in strength-of-record rank (how the chances the average top 25 team would have at least their record against their schedule). The Panthers SOS is 81st to date but 40th for the remainder of the season.

What the Numbers Say

Let's begin with overall scoring efficiency for each offense (Virginia Tech is in the near-center cluster with Syracuse and Georgia Tech):

Obviously Pittsburgh has been very, very good at scoring. But let's keep in mind these are raw stats — not opponent adjusted. The seeming bright spot for Pitt has been a 44-point showing against the FPI #29 defense, Tennessee. However, in the game the Panthers gained 4.8 yards per play, an average that would rank 114th nationally on the season. But thanks to three Tennessee turnovers Pitt was able to get an advantageous fourteen possessions in the game. All in all, not that impressive of an offensive performance.

The team also scored 51 on UMass, among the worst five defenses in FBS football; 41 on Western Michigan (61st FPI defense); 45 offensive points on Georgia Tech (40th, in what might actually be their best performance), and 68 offensive points on FCS UNH. That's a good offense, even opponent-adjusted. Virginia Tech's 46th-ranked defensive unit is comparable in efficiency to GT's, suggesting how critical a healthy Burmeister is for VT to keep pace. He won't show up on any Heisman watch lists, but based on what we have seen thus far, he is clearly the best QB on the team when healthy.

And now the defensive units:

Here opponent-adjustment also comes into play. UMass is terrible, but the other three FBS opponents the Panthers have played rank 21st, 44th, and 55th in Offensive FPI. The opponents the Virginia Tech defense has played rank 37th, 58th, 60th, and 104th. Adjusting for opponent (among many other factors) results in FPI defense rankings of 11th for Pitt and 46th for Virginia Tech.

A comparison of other team stats:

Category Team Stat Virginia Tech Hokies Pittsburgh Panthers
Offense Yards/Game 331.5 516
Yards/Play 4.7 6.7
Rush % 57.10% 48.70%
Yards/Rush 3.7 3.8
Yards/Pass 6.6 9.7
Completion % 58.00% 70.60%
TO Margin/Game 1 0.2
Defense Yards/Game 365.8 383
Yards/Play 5.2 5.3
Rush % 50.50% 48.10%
Yards/Rush 3.9 3
Yards/Pass 7.2 8.3
Completion % 57.90% 63.70%
TO Margin/Game -1 -0.2

Who To Watch Out For

It feels like in every Pitt BTAN the players to watch out for essentially come down to running backs and linebackers in a never-ending rotation of NFL-caliber talent. The good news is that's no longer the case in 2021. The bad news is the talent has simply moved to the passing game:

  • QB Kenny Pickett is 2nd nationally in passer rating at 194.7 with a 72% completion percentage and 10.3 YPA; most players progress, but it feels like Pickett is due for regression to the mean as his best numbers over four years are 129.6/61.6%/7.7.
  • WR Taysir Mack is an explosive threat on one end of Pickett's passes, with 61 yards per game on an 19.0 YPR average.
  • WR Jordan Addison is the explosive threat on the other end of Pickett's passes, with 104 yards per game on an 18 YPR average

Statistical Key to the Game

Statistically, Kenny Pickett has been a somewhat pedestrian QB for his entire career (which is now in its fifth season). Good enough to continue as the starter, but never good enough to draw any sort of national attention. If this was season two it would be easy to say he is developing into one of the game's best passers, but it isn't year two and it is very uncommon for someone to show such an enormous leap and sustain it. Although I hate the name, this is a classic "regression to the mean" scenario. One would expect that moving forward Pickett's performance will fall back in line with what would have been expected. This is Pitt football after all, and Pitt football does not belong in the top right of this graph:

WR Taysir Mack is averaging nearly 5 YPR above his career average, and WR Jordan Addison is averaging 7 YPR more than in 2020, his first season. In other words, a reincarnation of Larry Fitzgerald didn't show up.

Now let's look at defensive passing efficiency:

For me, something has to give in this game and I'm buying the Virginia Tech defense's performance in these metrics more than I'm buying Kenny Pickett. By no means am I saying Pickett is a fraud — he is a good college QB — but I'm highly skeptical he will continue to put up the same gaudy numbers moving forward and I'm hopeful the Hokie defense will be the one to break him. Either completion percentage or YPA, or maybe even both, could come back to earth in this game for the Panthers and a Virginia Tech win is banking on it.

Statistical Prediction

Before writing BTAN this week I thought Pitt wasn't getting the respect they deserve and that Virginia Tech was set up for a more difficult test than the higher-profile Notre Dame matchup. And while I still think the Panthers should get more love, looking at the stats has convinced me that this is a very winnable game if the Hokie offense can put the pieces back together after last weekend. Pitt may still win the ACC, but I don't believe they will run the table and the first blemish may as well happen on Saturday in Blacksburg.

Also, bet the Under (58).

Virginia Tech 28, Pittsburgh 24

Thanks to ESPN, Football Outsiders, teamrankings.com, cfbstats.com, and Tableau for the data and visualizations.

Comments

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21st century QBs Undefeated vs UVA:
MV7, MV5, LT3, Braxton Burmeister, Ryan Willis, Josh Jackson, Jerod Evans, Michael Brewer, Tyrod Taylor, Sean Glennon, and Grant Noel. That's right, UVA. You couldn't beat Grant Noel.

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Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

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To be the man you gotta beat the man!

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To be the man you gotta beat the man!

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Never Forget #1 Overall Seed UVA 54, #64 UMBC 74