I had made a point to say this week that Virginia was not as good as their record indicated. An ugly 41-10 loss last weekend against Boston College seemed to prove that but Pitt’s 31-14 win today over them was another indication that their 5-2 record was a little inflated.
The Panthers had a really solid effort today, I thought. They had some dumb penalties and made some mistakes out there, but overall, both sides played pretty well. I honestly think the score could have even been a little more lopsided.
This isn’t a knock of Virginia, of course. I think the program is making strides and is playing far better than we’ve seen in recent years. This is a team that won two games last year and only four in the year before. But my point is that at 5-1, it’s pretty clear this was a team that wasn’t as good as its record.
The defense, as it sort of has been, led the way again. Pitt got a really good start after the offense went three and out with Saleem Brightwell getting an interception with Virginia driving. The Panthers got into the end zone there and later went up 21-0 after a Quadree Henderson touchdown return.
Virginia sort of gave an indication they would be ripe for the picking after getting some great field position early and not being able to capitalize. They did get a touchdown before the half, but with a 21-7 lead, Pitt was in pretty good shape. The Panthers tacked on another touchdown on a Qadree Ollison run to go up 28-7 and while Virginia answered in the fourth, a field goal by Alex Kessman made it 31-14 and made it a three-score game, putting things out of reach.
The Panthers were without starting cornerback Avonte Maddox and I thought that could have been a big problem for them. But the secondary really played well giving up only 212 passing yards and getting the Brightwell pick.
Also on defense, I really liked what Pitt was able to do in the late downs. Virginia was only 6-17 on third down and had five fourth down attempts but converted only one of them. The front seven made a lot of big stops on the ground in particular, including the fourth quarter goal line stand.
It’s worth pointing out that Pat Narduzzi has taken a lot of grief from fans when the defense struggled early in his tenure. But, even though, these opponents the last couple weeks haven’t been great, I think that unit is really starting to make some strides. I still think they need to get a little more pressure on the ball (even though, today they did pretty good in that respect) but they definitely are showing some improvement over last year. The real test might come in the final two games but I think the Panthers have done some good things on defense this year and there’s a foundation being built in the secondary, in particular.
Offensively, Pitt got another good game from now starting running back Darrin Hall. Hall didn’t go off like he did last weekend but he did have 111 yards on the ground and a touchdown. Backing him up was Qadree Ollison, who averaged nearly eight yards per carry, adding 47 on his six attempts.
The Hall transformation is pretty amazing. This was a kid that could have been a candidate to transfer before the year began. He was clearly behind Ollison and also seemed to be behind Chawntez Moss. And while he was third in the pecking order, the Panthers also had two highly-regarded freshmen right behind him. Seeing him transfer wouldn’t have shocked me but what we’ve seen this year is exactly why kids shouldn’t make rash decisions when it comes to that. Ollison has struggled some, Moss was suspended and, all of a sudden, Hall’s become the guy. I’m really glad for him and he’s doing some good things out there.
Unfortunately, the passing game wasn’t great again. Pitt made some plays in the air, but quarterback Ben DiNucci was only 10-18 with 134 yards. He also had an interception to his one touchdown throw. At this point, I think we know what we have with him. But the good news is that, while he’s not doing much more than managing the game and scrambling a little bit, he’s at least giving the team a chance to win. That’s been enough because the running game has improved to the point that they are keeping defenders honest. I know fans want a quarterback that will make more plays but as long as DiNucci isn’t killing them with interceptions and negative plays, there’s value in that. I still think the Panthers need to figure something out for the long-term but it’s good to see DiNucci looking a little more comfortable.
If you’re a Pitt fan, this hasn’t been a great season. But beating both Duke and Virginia to get to 4-5 helped them avoid the disastrous two- or three-win season you really hate to see in a down year. The Panthers get a bad North Carolina team at home after a bye next weekend, which could pull them to .500 and get them within a win of being bowl eligible. Neither of the final two games, Miami and Virginia Tech, look all that winnable right now. But a lot of games don’t look winnable and it only takes pulling off one upset.
Pitt really needs to go out and beat North Carolina in that game, by the way. That’s a really, really big game. The little bit of momentum they’re enjoying will come to a screeching halt if they lose that one. At this point, the Panthers have to not only be playing for the rest of this year, but trying to give fans a reason to get excited for next year. Make no mistake, Pitt will sell some tickets anyway. That’s because they have Penn State on the home slate and will be able to move tickets to other games through packages with that one. But if they really want fans to show up to others and be engaged, it will be easier to do that with a 5-7 or 6-6 year than it will if the Panthers end 4-8.
The season has not been a good one but if the Panthers can find a way to beat North Carolina, the rebuilding year doesn’t look quite as bad as it could have been.