Pitt was a double-digit underdog going up against NC State on Saturday, so they weren’t expected to win. In that respect, they didn’t really disappoint too much, losing 35-17 on Homecoming to the Wolfpack.
The Panthers actually played really well in the first half, all things considered. To win the game, they needed to get a good start and they got that. After NC State missed a 4th and 3 attempt from Pitt’s 34-yard line, the Panthers defense forced them to punt on their next drive and scored the first touchdown to take an early 7-0 lead. Two big plays doomed the Panthers as the gave up a long 83-yard run to star Nyheim Hines and then allowed Hines to score a touchdown on a 92-yard punt return touchdown. But after trading punts, for a few series, Pitt put together a 10-play touchdown drive to tie the game.
NC State looked to have a touchdown at the end of the half but a pretty weak offensive pass interference call backed them up and they couldn’t even convert the field goal, so the teams went into halftime tied. That was a big win and really capped a strong half for them despite the big plays they gave up.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the highlights end.
Pitt’s offense (as it’s struggled to do all year) simply couldn’t keep up. NC State continued putting points on the board and Pitt added only three in the entire second half on an Alex Kessman field goal.
As a whole, I think the Panthers’ defense played okay. NC State scored 35 points but seven were on special teams and seven more were on that long 82-yard run. On the return, Rafael Araujo-Lopes was on kick return coverage and was blatantly held when he was in position to make a stop. Seven more points came with only a minute and a half left when the game was out of reach.
Did the defense play well enough to win? Nah. You can’t exactly discredit the 82-yard run because they still gave it up. And allowing 28 points on defense isn’t a great day, either. But they did hold star quarterback Ryan Finley to his second worst day of the season, completing only 14 passes for 198 yards and a single touchdown. Given how good he’s been this year, that’s a really solid effort. He was hurt by some drops but also got a few breaks, including when Pitt had absolutely great coverage and Dane Jackson was simply bested by a taller receiver who made a great catch for a big gain. The Pitt pass defense is clearly getting better and if you’re looking for some hope, I think there’s a lot of good things happening in the secondary.
Those guys are still making mistakes, of course. Damar Hamlin took a bad route on the 82-yard run when he expected Hines to take it outside. Had he been a little more patient and remained in the middle of the field, he would have been in position to make a stop. But I still believe the secondary is making real progress and Jackson in particular is getting better each week, it seems.
Offensively, Pitt just continued to fall short. Running the ball just doesn’t seem like much of an option for Pitt at this point. Darrin Hall got more snaps, which I wanted to see, but he was ineffective, rushing nine times for only 17 yards. Qadree Ollison got only two carries and actually had 17 yards but he’s been pretty mediocre when he’s been the lead back. Jordan Whitehead got eight carries but didn’t find much room and accumulated only 18 yards. Pitt simply can’t run the ball and there just aren’t any options there. I think Pitt has to try to find ways to get guys more space but there’s also a point where the coaches just have to throw up their hands. It’s clear there just aren’t the holes from the offensive line as were there in the past.
Speaking of the coaches, for at least the second straight week, I think some of their decisions didn’t exactly help. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson made a real head-scratcher of a call late in the game when Pitt had a 4th and 10 and needed a first down to really keep alive what few hopes they still had at that point. The play call? An option, which was gobbled up pretty easily to effectively end the game.
Takeo Spikes, who’s been an announcer for a few games this year kind of broke down the play afterward and explained what Watson may have been seeing to make that play call. But it’s one of those things that you absolutely don’t run unless you see something so blatant in the defense that you’re sure it will work. Otherwise, you set yourself up for criticism later. I do think the offense did a few things in this game but 17 points just isn’t enough and when you have play calls like that, it only adds to the anger of the fan base.
The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for Narduzzi to retain Watson. I’m not sure you can make a change after only one year. The problem is that you also have to consider you’d be bringing in yet another coordinator. If you bring in another guy next year, that’d be the fourth different one in Narduzzi’s four years here. You might look at what they did with Canada and say that they had some success with him. That’s certainly true, but Pitt also sort of caught lightning in a bottle with the amount of talent they had on the team and with Canada being present at the right time. Typically, changing offensive coordinators every year is a recipe for failure and it’s hard to consistently change the offense that much and expect players to be able to constantly adjust.
I’m not saying that Pitt absolutely can’t make a change there. You can’t keep Watson solely for fear of making another switch. But changing systems yet again just makes it hard for guys to be adequately prepared.
The other thing I didn’t like from a coaching perspective was Narduzzi’s handling of the quarterbacks. He brought in Kenny Pickett, which, after burning his redshirt last weekend for one play, seemed like it would be something that would happen at some point. Seeing Pickett play today, though, seemed to make little sense.
At the time he came into the game, Pitt had been pretty competitive with the Wolfpack and were only down by a touchdown. Why throw Pickett to, pardon the pun, the wolves at that point?
DiNucci wasn’t great but also probably gave them the best chance to win. He had 170 yards on 19-32 passing. Again, I don’t think he was having a great game. He had one interception and easily could have had two or three that went through the hands of defenders. But he wasn’t doing so poorly that yanking him was a viable option - especially in a close game. The only way you make that move is if you know that Pickett is going to come in and do a better job. Making that move because you think it might work out or because you don’t want Pickett’s first real playing to be because of an injury to DiNucci (as Narduzzi essentially said afterwards) isn’t acceptable - not when your starter is keeping you in the game.
Inexplicably, Narduzzi wasn’t done, though. He then drug DiNucci back into the contest with the game out of hand for Pitt’s last series, giving him mop-up duty. Again, I really don’t know why you go out and make that move, either. To get him one more series? Maybe. But if you’re DiNucci (who looked pretty agitated during the game on the sidelines to me), some part of you has to be wondering what exactly is going on.
Narduzzi, in general, seems like he does a lot of tap dancing with quarterbacks. He put Chad Voytik on a really short leash, which ultimately proved to be the right move since Nathan Peterman worked out. But this year, he started with Browne, who was largely an unknown. He benched him fairly quickly after he was ineffective against some really tough opponents and went to DiNucci. DiNucci was also ineffective so he quickly went back to Browne, who made some progress against Rice and Syracuse before his season was ended with an injury. So he’s now back to DiNucci and then proceeds to yank him in the middle of his first game back while it’s a close game and while he’s, by the way, mostly playing okay.
Don’t forget, too, that Narduzzi also brought in Central Florida transfer Bo Schneider last year. Schneider transferred out of Pitt before he was even eligible to play and is now down at Texas A&M. Given the mess of the current quarterback situation, you have to think you’d like to have him still around just to see if he can do anything. Pitt has tried quite a bit to find quarterbacks and it’s difficult to feel too encouraged about the future of the position.
Since Narduzzi’s been here, there have been a lot of moving parts at quarterback and despite the success of Peterman, the rest of the stable has been a bit of a mess. At this point, you either go into next year with a really big question at the position or you go out and bring in yet another grad transfer. Even if the rest of the team is, presumably, better, the most important position on the team still looks like a giant question mark for 2018.
Overall, today was just another one in an ugly season. I can’t even say I’m even a little upset at this point. Frustrated? Not really. The season effectively ended last week and these last five games from a fan perspective should really be about watching to see some guys develop. If you’re watching at this point to see the team salvage its season, that’s probably not a fruitful activity.