Pitt had a chance for nine regular season wins this year but fell short against Miami today, falling 29-24. The Panthers got behind 20-3 at halftime and despite a second-half rally of sorts, just couldn't complete the comeback.
All year, we've chided the team for slow starts. Sometimes it hasn't cost them, but others (like today), it certainly did. Despite outscoring Miami 21-6 in the second half, they couldn't make up the halftime deficit.
I know everyone wants to talk about the comeback that fell short, but I'm actually going to focus the beginning, since that's where the problems came. My early observations were that Pitt just couldn't catch a break of any sorts in the first half. Sure, Nathan Peterman's play wasn't good (at all) today, but it was more than that. They missed an early 48-yard field goal that bounced off the uprights while the Hurricanes hit one right down the middle later. Miami had a big call go their way on a touchdown pass that could have easily been called out of bounds. Pitt was pinned back deep in their own territory on two drives in the first half. They got inside the Miami 10-yard line on their one good drive in the first half but had to settle for a short field goal. Everywhere you looked, the team just couldn't catch a break in the first half.
There was lots of shooting themselves in the collective foot, too. Perhaps the most glaring example of that was in the third quarter when the team was trying to get something going. Trailing 23-3 and driving, Pitt faced a 3rd and 1 in Miami territory. Instead of the logical decision, a run (particularly because they Panthers were mostly having some success there), they chose a pass play. An incompletion and two penalties (false start and delay of game) later, and the Panthers suddenly had to punt on a once-promising drive.
When it comes to the coaches, I thought the offensive game plan left a lot to be desired. Instead of eating clock and keeping Miami's offense off the field, Pitt again threw far too much for my liking. The last few games I've made this point quite a bit but Pitt really needed to run the ball more. It seems like a broken record at this point, but it's just so glaring.
Pitt should generally be looking to run the ball more (in my opinion), anyway. But when you consider that coming into the game that the Miami run defense ranked 111th while their pass defense was 37th, it's sort of a no-brainer. The very obvious plan today should have been to run, run, and then run some more. To be fair, it's not as if they totally abandoned the run. However, the passing game caused them several problems.
Take, for example, the first five drives of the game when Pitt fell behind:
|Drive 1||Nathan Peterman threw an early interception helping Miami pad their early lead|
|Drive 2||After reaching the Miami 28-yard line, Pitt threw three consecutive incompletions resulting in a long missed field goal (ironically, it bounced off the uprights and would have been good if the Panthers were even a few yards closer).|
|Drive 3||Pitt went three-and-out after a short run and two incompletions.|
|Drive 4||Pitt figures things out (yay!) and runs on their first seven plays. The result? A field goal and the Panthers' first points.|
|Drive 5||Pitt was using the run quite a bit and, as they had done before, moved the ball pretty effectively. But on the Miami 33-yard line and facing a 3rd and 1, Pitt chose to abandon the run, and curiously threw an incomplete pass. The Panthers then had two foolish penalties to turn a 3rd and 1 into a 4th and 11, and an embarrassing punt.|
And heck, even when the team was passing the ball, I'm not entirely sure what they were doing sometimes. In the second-half with Pitt trailing 29-18 but driving, facing a key third and long (before the missed Chris Blewitt field goal), there was this:
#Pitt’s WRs on that third down were Quadree Henderson, Jester Weah and Manny Stocket.— Sam Werner (@SWernerPG) November 27, 2015
On that play, Peterman found no one open and while he did pick up some yardage, couldn't get a first down. I'm always against throwing coaches under the bus when you see something like that without knowing the details. But man, I'd love to know more about that personnel decision.
So here's the thing - you obviously can't run on every play. And as I universally say with the run/pass combination which is often misleading, down and distance is the biggest factor in what you do. But there were very clear times when Pitt needed to run and the game could have been different had they done that. It was even more painful to see all of the passing early on when you saw how well at times they ran the ball today. The offensive playcalling was again, at the very least, questionable at times.
The other thing to note, too, is that the special teams on both sides played a big hand in things. We all like to devalue the kicking game, but that's sort of what decided things here. Chris Blewitt made only one of his three field goal attempts today while Miami kicker Michael Badgley made all five of his. The kicking game wasn't the only reason Pitt lost, of course, but it was certainly a big factor. Blewitt had some long, but very makeable attempts that could have given the team a win.
Getting back to that slow start, it's mind-boggling to me just how bad they can be in one half and so much better than their opponents in the second. Pitt has outscored its foe in the second half of practically every single game. While it's encouraging that they are able to make the needed adjustments at the half, how can the team start out so poorly game after game?
While Pitt didn't do their part in being ready to play the game, one thing we can't lose sight of is that Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is very good. He certainly wasn't amazing today but performed well. We knew that he was good heading into the game, but he made throw after throw and was another reminder of why the Panthers need to upgrade the secondary. And as a whole, Miami's offense was hard to stop. The play-by-play guy was spot on in the second half when he commented about what the score could have been if Pitt wasn't able to hold the Hurricanes to field goals instead of touchdowns. Even when they weren't scoring touchdowns, Miami's offense was pretty much moving the ball at will for much of the game and Pitt's defense had its share of troubles.
One thing that sort of surprised me was the Hurricanes running game having more success than I expected. Joseph Yearby had 99 yards on 22 carries and all I could think of when I was watching him was how tough of a runner he was. He got some very tough yards out there and despite their low ranking nationally in rushing offense, Pitt's defense had some problems with him. They only had 116 yards as a team, so it's not as if the run-defense was terrible. But Yearby was pretty good for a team not known for its ground attack.
Was it encouraging to see the team play well later on and make a game of things? Absolutely. I was mostly happy with being able to stick with the game the entire time instead of having to bail in the third quarter if things got too far out of control. And I fully give those guys credit for turning things around at the end. But, come on, it's too little too late. You've got to come out ready to go and not decide with the game out of reach to start to show up.
The loss hurts and I've love to see what Pitt could have done with another drive. But in the grand scheme of things, it isn't the end of the world and doesn't really change the fact that the Panthers still had a good season overall. To win eight games with a challenging schedule (the non-conference schedule had to be among the toughest in all of college football), with a first-year head coach, and without James Conner is pretty impressive.
No, the Panthers aren't an elite team but they still have a chance at nine wins this year through a bowl game and as has been said ad nauseum this year, the future of the program is extremely bright.
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