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Pitt hangs on for 24-17 win at Duke

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Duke Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

So that was ... something.

To be fair, I’m still not sure what it was. For most of Pitt’s 24-17 win over Duke, the Panthers looked miserable on offense. The Panthers led at halftime, but only 7-3. The defense was solid but Pitt could do little offensively. But in the end, the Panthers (more specifically, Darrin Hall) made enough plays to win.

JD and I were the only ones to take Pitt in our picks this week. I can’t speak for him but as I’ve been saying, I just wasn’t real sold on Duke’s 4-3 record. They loaded up on a weak schedule and I thought that, similarly, Pitt had played a really difficult one. The Blue Devils sounded a bit overrated to me and, after seeing them today, I feel even more correct in that assertion. I don’t think Pitt is a very good team this year and Duke just does probably even less for me, despite the records coming in.

The Panthers, of course, were aided a little by a questionable call at the end of the game. Linebacker Elijah Zeise seemed to get away with a hold on defense after briefly grabbing a Duke receiver. That was a missed pass interference call and the interception by Jordan Whitehead sealed the game for Pitt.

Duke’s receivers continuously were calling for pass interference during the game. Often it was unjustified but that one was a pretty bad no call, in my opinion. There were more flagrant pass interference examples during the game that were called (a few plays earlier, Saleem Brightwell was called for an egregious one). However, I still think the one on Zeise probably should have been called. Even if Duke gets that call, there’s no guarantee they win, obviously, down seven. But they also could have and that would have made the terrible feeling most of us had during the game even worse.

Safe to say, Hall was the key for Pitt. The running back got the start on Saturday and scored all three of Pitt’s touchdowns. Two were spectacular, as he ran for scores of 79 yards in the first quarter and then 92 in the third. The 92-yarder was apparently the longest run in Pitt football history, which is pretty incredible considering all the great running backs the program has had. In all, Hall had 24 carries for 254 yards. And even if you take out those two big runs, Hall still had a half-decent day (22 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown).

The flip side of his play was the non-existent passing game. Quarterback Ben DiNucci completed only eight passes and was 8-18 for 149 yards. I was pretty surprised to see he finished with even that many as he had only 38 passing yards at halftime. DiNucci made a few plays on Saturday but was really underwhelming most of the time. I don’t want to turn this into an all about him thing. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson again underwhelmed and DiNucci often found covered targets. But he just didn’t play that well.

Most surprising to me was that head coach Pat Narduzzi, who has been known for giving guys really quick hooks, kept him in the game even when he couldn’t manage much offensively. Narduzzi yanked him in favor of Kenny Pickett last week when he was playing far better so to not even see Pickett make an appearance today was astonishing.

The one area that DiNucci did well was in not making mistakes. That’s really been his Achilles heel and one of the things Narduzzi has mentioned a few times this year in regards to his play. I think the plan to run the ball as much as possible had something to do with that and DiNucci only threw 18 times. But you still have to give him some credit for not turning the ball over. Unfortunately, a quarterback’s duties go a little beyond that. You’ve got to make some plays and while DiNucci did make a few, he really didn’t do enough.

The long-term prognosis at quarterback just doesn’t look promising. I don’t believe DiNucci is the answer and the one guy that might be, Pickett, couldn’t even get into a game when Pitt was struggling badly. I think he’s the only potential option for the team next year and my stance remains that, now that you’ve burned his redshirt, you’ve got to see what he can do.

The other side of this is that I don’t know how Pitt can go without bringing in another grad transfer next year. It might be difficult securing a good one because that guy will want to play and unless you’re committing to him, he would be reluctant to come here. But Pitt has a lot of questions at quarterback and if you don’t bring anyone in, you’re essentially leaving it in Pickett’s or DiNucci’s hands.

The offensive woes start at quarterback but they don’t end there. The running game, before today, had been mostly dormant. And today, there were just a lot of bad penalties. Pitt had a total of nine on the day and several were costly ones on offense, including false starts and holding penalties. As I said on Twitter, the offense wasn’t just stagnant but it was sloppy, too. The team just isn’t clicking too well on that side of the ball.

A bright spot for me was the defense. Those guys played lights out in the first half and other than a few broken pass plays in the second half, did a pretty good job. A big question going forward will be cornerback Avonte Maddox, who exited the game with some sort of arm or hand injury. If he’s out for any considerable time, that’s going to be a blow. Maddox takes a lot of criticism but has done a lot of really good things this season, too.

Pitt is now 3-5 and pulled out a win. But don’t make any mistake about it. The team, offensively, was mostly a train wreck again. The more we see of the offense, the less convinced I become that offensive coordinator Shawn Watson should be back. I don’t like to see a lack of continuity with coaches but he made quite a few head-scratchers again today. I don’t think DiNucci did him any favors for the most part but I also think that Watson will get some breaks this week because Pitt won the game and that shouldn’t be the case. The offense was not good enough and was bailed out by a couple of big runs.

I’m not trying to undermine what Pitt did today. A win is a win is a win. On the broadcast, it was referenced that Narduzzi was passionate with his guys after the third quarter, telling them they needed to finish the game. They did just that and made some plays down the stretch. I was impressed they seemingly went into another gear and got the job done.

But there are still some very real deficiencies with this team that have to get solved going forward if next year is going to be an improvement. I’m concerned that the win could provide false sense of security that things are going well and that shouldn’t be the case. Much work needs to be done on the offensive end.

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