The final score might hint otherwise, but if you watched today's Pitt game, it's hard to come away with the thought that it really wasn't that close.
On Homecoming, the Panthers left Heinz Field with a 26-19 win and a 4-1 start to the season. But while Pitt won by only a touchdown and needed to hold off a final Virginia drive to seal the victory, the Panthers clearly looked like the better team for much of the contest.
We can't truly give Pitt credit for a dominant performance. To do so would indicate they played a nearly perfect game and that really wasn't the case. The Panthers had two very costly turnovers, never fully put Virginia away despite some 14-point leads, and barely won the time of possession and total yardage battles. But the team also did a lot right, which made the game mostly easy on the eyes.
First things first - Virginia is not a good football team. While Pitt didn't put the points on the board, they arguably should have won this game going away. I mentioned those two turnovers and both were key in keeping the game close. With Pitt leading 17-3 and with the ball, a blowout looked to be within reach until Virginia picked up a fluky, close-range interception/fumble in one of the oddest plays you'll ever see. Not only did they get the turnover but they ran it back for a touchdown, creating a seven-point game.
The second came with the Panthers holding another double-digit lead, up by 11. Qadree Ollison fumbled the ball on the 1-yard line about to punch in another touchdown and that took away what should have been an 18-point lead. Pitt did pick up a safety on the ensuing Virginia drive to help salvage the mess that was created, but it was another example of the team refusing to put the Cavaliers away.
The offense made some plays but the defense was again playing very well. They weren't completely lights out, but were pretty close to it. The Cavaliers mustered only six points on offense coming on two field goals until a touchdown in the fourth quarter. After the initial field goal, Virginia's offense punted five consecutive times and then threw an interception. In all, the defense allowed only 12 points and, regardless of opponent, that's impressive.
Consider, too, that this was a defense that game up 37 points to Youngstown State in the opener. These guys are getting better and it's showing on the field. Seven points against Akron, 13 last week against Virginia Tech, and 12 on offense today against Virginia. That unit is on a roll and making considerable progress ... and we're not even halfway into head coach Pat Narduzzi's first season.
It wasn't all defense, though, and the offense, as I mentioned, had its moments. Quarterback Nathan Peterman put together another solid effort and while he did have the turnover, it really wasn't his fault. The ball took a weird bounce on a pass attempt and ended up in the hands of the Virginia defender who ran it in. He's not passing for 300 yards or anything, but then again, neither did Chad Voytik when he was the starter last year. Peterman is making mostly accurate throws and cutting back on his mistakes. Pitt doesn't need him to go out and win games most of the time. What they do need from him is to make throws, score a few points, and move the ball downfield - and he's doing that. The defense is playing well enough that the Panthers should have a chance to win if they merely hold onto the football and score some points. Overall, Peterman is doing a nice job.
The running back situation is going to be something to monitor. As I wrote this past week, Qadree Ollison had seized hold of the starting job. But Chris James had a big day today with 11 carries for 94 yards. Ollison also had the big goal-line fumble and that could open the door for more time for James. More on this a little bit later today.
Tyler Boyd didn't have a huge day, but did have a ridiculous touchdown catch. The noteworthy thing in the passing game is that Pitt finally got a second receiver more involved that wasn't a tight end. Dontez Ford made a big impact catching three passes for 63 yards - his biggest game of the year. And when you consider that tight ends J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff made big contributions (four combined catches for 99 yards and a touchdown), Peterman did a nice job in spreading the ball around. Chris James, Jaymar Parrish, and George Aston all made catches out of the backfield, too.
Boyd will continue to get the bulk of the targets, as he should. He had seven catches on Saturday and will lead the team in that category potentially every single game he's out there. But Peterman is starting to find some other weapons, too, and that will only help in the long run. Not only this season, either - look beyond that. Next year, there is a very real chance that Boyd will be in the NFL. It's good that Peterman is finding some of these other guys because if he remains the starter next season, chances are he won't have his favorite target.
Also noteworthy, was the crowd. It wasn't a sellout but a very respectable showing. I'm not sure what the final attendance actually was, but the stadium was pretty full for a game against a not-so-great opponent. In addition, the students did a great job in sticking around for the entire game. There still was a slight exodus by some fans after Sweet Caroline, but it was certainly cut back than in previous games/years.
You've likely heard by now, but Pitt offered students that stayed for the entire game a snack and something to drink on the way back to Oakland. Is the equivalent of a $3.00 package enough to keep them in the stands for the fourth quarter? I'm not sure. But it is a start and you really have to applaud the Panther Pitt student group and the university for working together to actively and creatively find ways to keep students engaged.
Has this program turned the corner? We won't officially be able to say that once we get through this string of 6-6 seasons. But at 4-1, there's a lot to like about the direction of the football team and it certainly looks that way. Pat Narduzzi has these guys playing well and it could be the beginning of something special.
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