Last year, the Panthers finished the regular season at 6-6 for the fourth consecutive year. That team, like the others before it under Paul Chryst and Todd Graham, was the height of mediocrity. The two biggest reasons for that were the disappointing losses as well as the ones where the team couldn't quite finish. Pitt would occasionally knock off a better opponent, but as a whole, the bad losses balanced things out and kept the program from taking meaningful strides forward. Those trademark losses, if nothing else, really defined Pitt football since the exit of Dave Wannstedt.
Consider the following:
In 2014, Pitt dropped a game to Akron, collapsed in the bowl game against Houston, and was 1-5 in games decided by five points or less.
In 2013, the team was better in close games, but lost to Navy on their way to another 6-6 year
In 2012, the Panthers dropped Paul Chryst's debut to Youngstown State and finished 6-6 in the final year of the Big East - a conference that some expected them to win
In 2011 under Todd Graham, Pitt was a 0-4 in games decided by five points or less and was blown out in an uninspiring bowl performance against SMU
The last four seasons have been marred by close losses and, worse, losses to bad teams. None of the ones mentioned even include the conference games against bad teams.
This year, however, new head coach Pat Narduzzi was having none of it.
While it would have been nice to see the Panthers a little more competitive against the better teams they faced, there wasn't the terrible loss that we've seen in the past. Pitt's worst loss was arguably in the finale against the 8-4 Hurricanes, and as we saw Saturday, a pretty good team.
The biggest problem with some of those losses in the past is that a few have been absolute momentum killers. Pitt was 3-1 last year before losing consecutive games against Akron and Virginia to fall to 3-3. The Panthers were 4-2 the year before and then dropped a game to Navy. And while the Youngstown State loss didn't halt in-season momentum, it certainly took a lot of the wind out of the sails of a program that was desperate to get the Paul Chryst era off on the right foot.
On the close losses front, the Panthers more than did their part this year. I've said it several times this season, but the team just found ways to win games instead of losing them or watching their opponent steal the victory. How Pitt closed out games was incredibly impressive. The Panthers used late field goals to defeat both Georgia Tech and Syracuse. Clinging to a four-point lead against Virginia Tech, Pitt forced the Hokies into a punt and two interceptions to hold on for the win.
Pitt did lose a close game to Iowa but that was behind a 57-yard field goal. Outside of that, the Panthers were pretty strong in close games. They lost to Miami by only five but that was due to a furious rally late in the game and it wasn't really one you'd consider that close.
The Panthers weren't perfect this season. They were able to keep things close against Iowa, but North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Miami all proved that the team needs some significant talent upgrades in areas. If Pitt is ever going to reach an ACC title game, they will need to acquire some better players. But the first step for the Panthers in turning things around was winning the games they should and finding a way to pull out some wins in close contests.
In 2015, they managed to do both.