Coming into the Pinstripe Bowl, Pitt looked like a team poised to reach nine wins. Vegas seemed to agree, too, first installing the Panthers as 3.5-point favorites before upping that line to 4.5 or 5 in various outlets.
Seems Northwestern had other plans.
The Panthers sputtered their way to a slow offensive start and never recovered in an ugly 31-24 loss to end the season.
Watching the game purely as a football fan, it had to be entertaining. There was a lot of drama with some key injuries, some timely turnovers, and a few nice individual performances. You had a backup quarterback come in and make some plays before throwing a few interceptions. But as a Pitt fan, it was wildly frustrating.
It was easy to like Pitt in this game. The offense had been on a roll and the Panthers won their final three games to end the season. That, of course, included the massive victory against Clemson. But for whatever reason, Pitt could just not get going on Wednesday.
On offense, Pitt wasn't completely inept but had problems finishing things off. In the red zone on their first drive, Quadree Henderson took an eight-yard loss and the Panthers had to settle for a field goal. The Panthers failed to convert on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line after James Conner was stuffed on their next drive. Then, with 3rd and goal from the Northwestern 10-yard line, Nathan Peterman threw a bad interception ending yet another drive.
That was just in three drives, folks.
Pitt did rebound offensively and managed to take the lead a few times in the second half. Despite how they started off, they had a chance to win but continued to make mistakes. Chris Blewitt missed a 43-yard field goal and in their final three drives, Quadree Henderson fumbled the ball in Pitt territory while backup quarterback Ben DiNucci threw two interceptions.
Ah yes, the backups.
Part of the reasons for Pitt's offensive woes were they flat out missed some guys. Peterman was replaced by DiNucci seeing his first real action in his career after he went down with some sort of injury (presumably - he was on the receiving end of a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit). James Conner suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit and missed the entire second half. And All-American guard Dorian Johnson was knocked out of the game with an injury as well.
One thing I didn't care for was the ESPN commentary regarding the helmet-to-helmet hit on Peterman. One (either Golic Jr. or the third guy there sort of holding things together...I think the latter) stated that he was happy the player with the big helmet-to-helmet wasn't ejected and that he could continue to play. If you saw the hit it was a pretty brutal one. To not only keep that guy in the game but have that go unpenalized was confusing at best. If that wasn't a helmet-to-helmet hit then I'm unsure of what is.
It's one thing to want football played the way it was 30 years ago but the fact is that it is not. One thing announcers shouldn't be doing is celebrating like giddy school girls when dangerous plays are allowed and penalties are not called. That whole sequence just seemed out of place, to be honest.
Could Pitt have won the game with those guys all in there and healthy? Perhaps. But Pitt's slow start and not finishing a few drives really made that more difficult. If the Panthers wanted to ensure victory, finishing plays in the first half might have helped.
Defensively, there were lapses. But there have usually been lapses on defense. The thing most of us didn't expect was how poorly Pitt performed against the run. Northwestern back Justin Jackson ran for 224 yards and three touchdowns while averaging seven yards per carry. As former Pitt receiver Antonio Bryant said on Twitter, the Panthers made him look like a Hall of Famer.
Now, Jackson is a great running back. But with a top ten run defense, I don't think anyone saw that coming. The secondary wasn't stellar, but giving up only 214 yards, most of us would take that. A big problem was that the defense just couldn't get any key stops, really. I think they allowed Northwestern to convert all three of their fourth down attempts and also gave up several big third and longs.
Really disappointing end to the season, to be honest. Pat Narduzzi has done a great job of winning games they should and I felt like they should have won this one coming in. But the fact is that, as I said in the preview, anything can happen in these teams. You never know how teams will perform with such a long layoff.
Northwestern performed admirably and Pitt did not. It's frustrating seeing them come within a touchdown despite all of the injuries and despite the offensive miscues in the first half. But that's what makes a football game. Northwestern made plays today and the Panthers didn't - at least not enough of them. I fully credit Northwestern here for showing up and playing well enough to win, despite the missed guys on Pitt's end. Even when Pitt had those guys all in there, they trailed at the half.
I don't know what this does to Narduzzi's rep as a bowl game coach. He's now 0-2 with the Panthers but Pitt lost to a very good Navy team last year with Keenan Reynolds and this year, he lost his quarterback, top running back, and perhaps his best offensive lineman all in the same game. What we can all agree on, though, is that Pitt got to a very slow start out of the gate and just didn't look all that ready to play by having those red zone collapses.
Where's this put the season in context for Pitt? Man, I don't know. I still think that winning eight regular season games (including against Penn State and Clemson) with the tough schedule they had makes it a success. But a loss like this just really takes the air out of the sails heading into next season. Pitt would likely have been a Top 20 team with a win today. Instead, they're looking at likely being out of the Top 25 altogether.