Sometime with about five minutes left, I began to write what would no doubt be the authoritative piece on how Pitt finished its season with a win, sending the seniors off in style. The senior sendoff was important to me as I mentioned earlier in the day, so it was good to see them not only finish the year on top, but do it in style.
Believing the game was secured was my first mistake.
The Panthers had built a commanding 21-point lead and with four minutes left, they not only had the game in hand, but had looked well most of the day. Tyler Boyd had another 100-yard game and his nine catches helped him surpass Larry Fitzgerald on the career receptions list. Chad Voytik was a strong leader throughout, and despite terrible conditions for a quarterback, completed more than 50% of his passes without an interception. James Conner was held in check with only 90 rushing yards, but the team collectively had 227 and three touchdowns (two from Conner).
Things were going about as well as could reasonably be expected, so the outcome was natural. Final Score: Houston 35, Pitt 34
The frustrating thing to me is that the team inexplicably failed to learn anything as the year went on. They got behind big to Virginia early in the year before fighting back in the second half to lose a close game. They went up against Iowa in the first half and collapsed in the second in another close loss. If there's any one thing the team should have learned by this point, it's that you have to play a full 60 minutes. Not 30, 40, or even 55. The fact that this team was so arrogant to believe that another collapse couldn't possibly happen to them really boggles the mind.
It goes beyond this year, too. Several of these players were around for Pitt's nightmare against Iowa in 2011 when the Panthers were up by 17 in the fourth quarter. How on earth do you rest on laurels when something like that happens?
For all of the talk about Paul Chryst getting this program on track, he never changed the culture. Sure, Pitt will go out and win a game or two that they shouldn't. But there are always the Youngstown State games. The ones against Akron and Navy. There are the utter collapses like this one. Many fans were sad to see Chryst leave and I, personally, even had hoped he'd stay to provide some stability. But the one thing he didn't do is fix this mess - he bandaged it with better recruiting on the offensive line. With a few stars in James Conner and Tyler Boyd.
Make no mistake, Pitt has an underlying issue that needs to be fixed about playing hard and with focus 100% of the time. Now, no program realistically does that all the time and every team has lapses. But this isn't a lapse - it's a monumental collapse and the fact that Pitt has had similar ones should point out that there's a real problem here.
There was poor coaching. There was poor playing. But the thing that is hardest to believe is the players having such an utter air of laziness - and that's all it is when you have a clear talent advantage and still blow a 21-point lead in a game's final minutes
This, of course, is more on the defense and special teams, as the offense did a very good job in poor weather. Two muffed receptions on special teams? We were also treated to that dog of a pass defense as Reggie Mitchell completely had no business being on the field.
I always caution myself before throwing individual players under the bus - it's one of those things you learn while blogging about a team for as long as I have. But Mitchell had a pretty terrible game and it absolutely can't be excused. Earlier, on a crucial 3rd down, he completely whiffed on what should have been a routine sack, allowing a Houston drive to stay alive and they eventually scored. Late in the game, it was Mitchell who was burned on two 20+ yard receptions in the final two minutes.
The secondary is a mess and Mitchell, who admittedly has made a few plays this year, was right in the middle of it. The defensive schemes, whatever they were, and the matching of personnel was a complete train wreck.
And while I've not gotten on board with the whole 'Matt House is the worst person ever' mentality, there's a good reason, folks, that he's not going to be Paul Chryst's defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. He's not qualified. Where Pat Narduzzi made adjustments to his defense in a comeback win against Baylor, House was, in fact, doing the exact opposite. The sad thing is that House's defense didn't need to be spectacular - they just needed not to suck.
In the last few minutes of the game.
Whatever it was that House was doing wasn't working. And to spend an entire year with a secondary and not be able to merely prevent them from giving up three passing touchdowns in a game's final four minutes just means you're not doing your job.
In the words of Tyson Kidd - FACT.
Don't feel sorry for Pitt's players - even the offensive ones that did their job. The offense had its chances to clean up the defense's mess, too. On the team's final drive, Tyler Boyd completely flubbed a perfectly thrown ball by Chad Voytik that would have put Pitt in position for a game-winning field goal. Pitt was also previously bailed out with a pass interference call (the right call) to get them to midfield.
You win and lose as a team. The sheer gall surrounding this program despite four consecutive 6-6 seasons is flat laughable and the height of ignorance. The culture is something in dire need of changing and new coach Pat Narduzzi better realize that he has a lot of work to do.
More than we can probably imagine.
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