Eight games into the season, the Panthers continued to confirm what many of us thought about them - they're good, not great.
Pitt fell short yet again against a ranked opponent, this time falling to Virginia Tech, 39-36 with all eyes on them on a Thursday night. Is the loss a bad one? Not really. But it reaffirms that the Panthers still have work to do to become a legit Top 25 team.
As usual, Pitt's offense put points on the board by scoring 36 points. You'd like to think that would be enough to win most games. But it was again Pitt's secondary that helped make the scoring all too easy.
We knew that quarterback Jerod Evans could have a field day. Not only is he capable of passing for a lot of yards, he can also scramble and doesn't make many mistakes. To their credit, the Panthers didn't allow him to scramble too much, but they also gave up 406 passing yards.
Don't get me wrong. Part of that seemed to be on the officials having a terrible night. There were several missed calls, such as the blatant facemask that wasn't called on James Conner. But more importantly, the Hokies got away with quite a bit of pushing off on Pitt's defensive backs. And no, it wasn't only paranoid Pitt fans on Twitter that noticed. Head coach Pat Narduzzi complained outwardly during the game ... and afterward:
Narduzzi became increasingly animated on the sideline as the game wore on, convinced Virginia Tech's wide receivers were illegally giving themselves and advantage on all those alley-oop passes from Evans.
"They did a great job pushing off all night," Narduzzi said. "Give them credit for that."
As is the case anytime officiating gets in the way, there were certainly other opportunities to win. I always have a difficult time pinning too much on the officials. Pitt got off to a sluggish start offensively with the Quadree Henderson fumble on special teams and then the Nathan Peterman interception, generating zero points in the first quarter. They allowed points in every quarter. Despite the questionable calls, Pitt still had a chance to win. The problem is that when the pass defense is already as shaky as it has been, it gets very difficult to stop opponents when the officials aren't doing them any favors. Simply put, officiating has to be better than that.
The defense could have been worse. After all, they held Virginia Tech to six field goals despite the Hokies getting deep into Pitt territory on numerous occasions. The flip side is that things could have been much, much worse. If the Hokies convert even two of those drives for touchdowns, it becomes a much more comfortable win. You also have to give Virginia Tech kicker Joey Slye a ton of credit for hitting all six of those attempts. He misses even one and we could have a very different result.
There were bright spots that kept Pitt in the game, obviously. Chief among them was James Conner, who had his biggest game of the year with 141 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Also there was Dontez Ford, who returned earlier than expected, catching three passes for 59 yards - second best on the team. Finally, Nathan Peterman had 267 passing yards and made some key plays. On the other side of the ball, the defensive line again made plays with Ejuan Price picking three tackles for losses while tackles Shakir Soto and Tyrique Jarrett each had a sack.
One interesting thing was that Chawntez Moss, while playing, didn't get a single carry. Maybe I missed it, but not quite sure what happened there.
One other thing to watch going forward is the presence of cornerback Damar Hamlin. Hamlin's redshirt was officially burned as he got into the game with an injury to Phillipie Motley. Narduzzi said afterward that he would continue to play for the Panthers, so the training wheels are off. I think this will only help Pitt going forward. He's going to struggle a bit but the reality is that the Panthers are still not only playing for quite a bit this year, but by playing him now, he'll get a jump on next season and it won't be completely new to him.
There's really not much more to break down here. Pitt has proven to be a decent team by picking up five wins in their first eight games. But games like these are reminders that Pitt still has a ways to go to start fighting for conference titles. The Panthers are good, but not good enough - and it's going to be up to Narduzzi to help them get to the next level.
The ACC Division hopes are essentially dashed with this loss tonight, but there's still plenty to play for. A seven, or even eight-win, regular season is still possible. And despite the setback tonight, eight wins with this schedule would still equal a pretty good year.