It wasn't easy, but Pitt found yet another way to win a close game. This time, the Panthers eeked out a 23-20 road victory against Syracuse on Saturday.
At some point, the team has to be taken for real. It was hard to do that with modest wins against Youngstown State and Akron. It got a little easier with wins against Virginia Tech and Virginia. The nation took notice as the Panthers were ranked this week after a win at Georgia Tech. At 6-1 and with yet another road win, if you're not on board yet, you should be.
It's not that Pitt defeated Syracuse to become bowl-eligible already. The Orange aren't terrible but aren't great, either. It's a game that Pitt should have won, as evidenced by the nearly ten-point spread as of this morning. But winning this game is yet more evidence that the Panthers aren't conducting business as usual.
For all of the off-field stuff we've talked about - the Pat Narduzzi hire, the uptick in recruiting efforts, the rebranding efforts, the things happening on the field are what you should be noticing.
On the field, Pitt wasn't great today. Tackling was a nightmare and Eric Dungey was difficult to stop. The offense moved the ball but had several drives stall out. It was hardly a flawless win. But a closer look at two things that we're seeing on the field is what I'm excited about.
First, the second half adjustments continue to work. Getting a little ahead of myself here, this fourth quarter stuff is very real, guys. We've heard about and seen the way Pitt plays in the fourth quarter and it's just different from how they approach things during the game. To infer that they aren't playing hard early on isn't accurate, of course. But there's an added level of intensity that's pretty visual that they bring in the final period. I love the stuff they do on in bringing everyone out onto the field to get pumped up and they back that up with plays. But more than that, it's what they do in the second half of games.
Pitt gave up a total of three points in the final two quarters. Part of that was getting to Dungey, who had a terrific first half. They picked him off twice and you have to wonder if the big hit he took at the beginning of the half had anything to do with that. Overall, the defense ramped it up in the second half and the halftime adjustments this team makes, whatever they are, always seem to work incredibly well. These coaches, particularly on defense, really figure things out after a half of football and coordinator Josh Conklin deserves a ton of credit.
The other thing is just massive guts by head coach Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi doesn't only have some trick plays up his sleeve, but really has very little concern of going by the book. Last week, his call of going for the 56-yard field goal against Georgia Tech worked out perfectly despite being a very risky move. On Saturday, it was the jaw-dropping fake punt in the fourth quarter.
Facing a 4th and 7 from around midfield, Narduzzi called for a fake punt. Punter Ryan Winslow connected with linebacker Matt Galambos for a 12-yard reception to get the ball into Syracuse territory and, more importantly, pick up a first down. Going for it on 4th down is almost always a somewhat risky decision. To do it in a tie game when you're at midfield and with only a few minutes left is all freaking in. Not too many coaches have the guts to pull that off and fortunately for Pitt, it paid off. I said this on Twitter recently, but the dude simply does not care. He will eat your lunch and then expect you to pay for it. That mentality, swagger, whatever you want to call it, is a big part of this 6-1 start in my opinion.
That play was the biggie, but also look at what they did on that final drive. Pitt got the ball with 9:20 to play and most would have assumed at the time that Syracuse would get the ball back. But the Panthers ran the ball 13 times and just wore out the Orange for the chip shot field goal attempt. In addition to the second-half adjustments, Narduzzi's in-game decisions have been strong.
Many fans will also point to how Pitt handled the field goal attempt at the end. Under Paul Chryst against Duke, the Panthers inexplicably didn't center the ball on a short field goal try to win the game. Blewitt, at a difficult angle, missed and the team fell in overtime. Narduzzi got the ball right in the middle of the field where it should have been last year. I made much of the fact that Blewitt still should have made that kick last season. But there's also no reason to not put him dead on in the middle of the field, either. It's such a minor thing that it almost doesn't even warrant a mention since practically every coach does it. But it was just another reminder for me here that Narduzzi is buttoned up, right to the end.
Looking in on a few individual performances, I really think the Dungey kid is going to be a player for Syracuse. He's the type of kid that will make plays and I think he's going to give Syracuse a chance to do some things. I'm not sure if the hard hit he took was a factor on the interceptions, but you have to wonder if Pitt wins this game if he plays as well as he did in the first half.
On the Pitt side, running back Qadree Ollison (103 yards and two touchdowns) and wide receiver Tyler Boyd (12 catches for 93 yards) both were again keys. Quarterback Nathan Peterman didn't break out against what has been a pretty weak Syracuse pass defense, but at 19-25, completed nearly 80% of his passes, and his 193 yards were adequate. The other big thing, of course, was that he went without a turnover yet again and as I've said for a while now, he is giving the team a chance to win games. At this point, too, he's more than a game-manager. Peterman made some impressive passes today, including two big 17-yard strikes to Dontez Ford and Scott Orndoff on that last drive. He is doing far more than simply keeping them in it.
Speaking of Ford, he stepped up in a big way. It's not only that he got open enough to get targets, but he made some big catches today. The biggest was a 17-yard grab on that final drive when it was 3rd and 5. He needs to do more this year and factor in to more plays, but I was really encouraged by how he played today. He proved he can be a legit No. 2 receiver and that's something they've been missing.
And Blewitt, of course, deserves credit for the kick at the end. Yes, it was a chip shot, but you still have to make it. A lot has to go right - from the snap to the hold to the kick. Everything did and Blewitt deserves credit for getting the ball through the uprights.
6-1, in the rankings ... there's really not much to dislike here. Pitt didn't dominate the Orange as many people thought would happen but I'd question your mental stability if you can walk away from this upset. The Panthers' ability to defeat the better teams in the conference is still in question, but it's hard not to be encouraged with what we're seeing here.
Short week and then North Carolina for a big home game Thursday night.