Pitt traveled to Syracuse on Saturday and failed to come away with a victory, losing 27-24. That drops the Panthers to 2-4 on the season while Syracuse moves to 3-3.
The biggest problem I had (as I expect most did) today was the inability to do much of anything on offense. Pitt wasn’t completely helpless in scoring 24 points but was definitely lacking. Some of that was on the players. Aaron Mathews and Jester Weah both had key drops which would have been long gains. Earlier in the game, Max Browne also missed on two long throws - one of which was going to Quadree Henderson, who was at least 15 yards open and underthrown by about that much for an incompletion. Anything other than a complete dumpster fire of a pass is the easiest touchdown you see all day.
The players can’t and shouldn’t be off the hook. But many of the play calls on offense were complete head-scratchers. I’ve generally abstained from beating up on offensive coordinator Shawn Watson because I think he’s working with far fewer weapons than Matt Canada had last season when Pitt’s offense was so dynamic. But some of the play calls - a shovel pass on 3rd and 9, a shot in the end zone on a 35-yard throw or whatever on 3rd and 5, a sweep and missed throw on 2nd and short to punt, IIRC ... some of this is just making bad decisions.
There was one sequence that was really frustrating to watch. Pitt had a 3rd and 2 set up but decided to run the ball with a handoff five yards deep. They didn’t get it and subsequently punted. I made the point on Twitter that if you simply run the QB up the middle there on a sneak you either pick up a first down on 3rd or 4th down. Fast forward to Syracuse in a similar situation late in the game. Instead of handing the ball off so deep, they ran a power run with a big back who was about two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Pitt held but they then ran quarterback Eric Dungey up the middle for a first down.
Maybe a guy like George Aston there makes all the difference but if you’re Pitt, you have to find a way to get those yards. Those are the kinds of decisions I’m referencing. That’s the difference in the game. Pitt’s playcalling was just really questionable in more than a few places.
The glaring problem for Pitt all day on offesnse was 3rd down. I don’t think they converted one until late in the game, in fact, and they finished 3-13. Just not good.
I don’t know where Pitt goes from here on offense but it’s pretty clear that the sweeps and trick plays that were effective last year aren’t working anymore. To continue running them is just ignoring the problem. At this point it almost seems like they’re running them more out of a habit and less because they’re effective. I’m convinced, more than ever, that the offense needs a complete overhaul and maybe that’s best done with a new guy.
The offense was particularly frustrating given how well the defense played most of the game. They allowed 27 points but kept Syracuse to only three for most of the first half before giving up a late touchdown with about 30 seconds left. Syracuse also was aided by a dumb penalty to keep a drive alive and also get seven more points. Overall, I think the Panthers’ defense did about as good of a job as you could given the circumstances of facing such a great passing game.
The focus was on containing wide receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips and Pitt was solid on them. Both made plays and had a big impact, but the Panthers held them to about 150 yards total and held Ishmael under 100 yards - the first time anyone did that this year. Some other guys got into the act and impressed at Syracuse’s depth at receiver. But if the game plan was to slow those guys down, I give Pitt’s secondary credit for doing that. And it would have been hard to expect Pitt to hold Syracuse to 27 points overall. That gave them a chance to win and I’m not going to complain about that.
Now, even though the defense played pretty well against a strong passing team, they made some mistakes. None bigger than a costly personal foul penalty by linebacker Chase Pine. With Pitt ahead at some point, they forced Syracuse into a fourth down and long, which was an obvious punting situation. Pine took it upon himself to hit quarterback Eric Dungey late and that kept the drive alive. From there, Syracuse promptly went the rest of the way and scored a touchdown.
You never lose a game on one play but that gave the Orange the lead and those seven points in a four-point loss are, well, the difference. You just can’t do that there. If I’m picking one play that was the turning point, that was it. Pitt had plenty of chances after that but with Max Browne out, they couldn’t move the ball much and really could have used those points.
To the coaching, I also had a problem with a few decisions presumably made by Pat Narduzzi. For one thing, the Panthers were left scrambling at the end of the game because they had burned two timeouts. This is a common theme with the team. My memory could be bad here but it seems like the Panthers often have few timeouts left at the ends of games. That again was the case here and Pitt simply ran out of time. They didn’t get the stops they needed on Syracuse’s last drive and they didn’t have timeouts left to stop the clock.
One of those timeouts was used when Ben DiNucci inadvertently lost his helmet and was forced out of the game for a play. With Max Browne out of the game due to an injury, that meant Pitt faced the prospect of burning the redshirt of Kenny Pickett, the No. 3 emergency quarterback due to one silly play.
The problem I have is that, a better alternative would have been to simply send quarterback Tom MacVittie in or have a non-traditional quarterback ready to take snaps, similar to what Pitt did in the past with receiver Greg Cross. Seriously? There’s not one guy available to take a snap so you can preserve a redshirt?
Now, the redshirt was preserved. Narduzzi called a timeout, which allowed Pitt to reinsert DiNucci without penalty. Problem is, it happened again with only two seconds left in the game. Out of timeouts, the only option was to play someone. But instead of going to MacVittie or having another player available, Pitt went to Pickett and burned his redshirt with one meaningless play where the Panthers failed to score a touchdown and lost the game.
If Pitt had more of a chance to win on that last play, I’m fine with playing Pickett there. But needing to go about 70 or 80 yards, it was such a foolish waste. I’m waiting to hear the rationale on it later because, on the surface, it made zero sense. If nothing else, you have a position player ready to take an emergency snap. And given that it happened earlier in the game, I can’t fathom why another option wasn’t established just in case it happened again. The whole thing just wreaked of being unprepared.
Not sure the status of the quarterback situation now. Narduzzi will be mum on Browne’s status and with Pickett’s redshirt burned now, it almost makes sense to just play him if you think he’s better than DiNucci and could be the guy next year.
Before I duck out, have to give credit to Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead played a lot on both sides of the ball and was by far the best running back on the team while also making plays in the secondary. He had one pass breakup in the end zone in particular that was just a fabulous play. If that kid is back for his senior season, I would be pretty surprised. He’s a player.
Also, big props to kicker Alex Kessman, who has really turned around after a slow start. Narduzzi said earlier when he had been struggling that he wasn’t even slightly concerned about Kessman and we’re starting to see why. He nailed kicks of 42, 49, and 56 yards on Saturday, missing none. Kessman really was one of the biggest reasons the game was close. He did an outstanding job and it’s great that he’s so good already as a freshman. Pitt will presumably have three more years out of him and it’s nice to know the kicking game could be taken care of for that long.
Overall, we wanted to see where Pitt was as a team and I think we got a pretty good answer. This just isn’t a good team. Not good coaching and not making enough plays, particularly on offense. I think the jury was still out on how good this team was coming into the game but we have a much better idea at this point. There are a lot of problems. No running game, receivers dropping crucial balls, dumb penalties, questionable coaching. Just a lot of issues right now.
Part of the frustration with a loss like this is that I’m not convinced Syracuse is all that hot, either. They made a lot of mistakes (how do you have 12 men on the field three times in the same game?) and just weren’t all that impressive. That’s no knock on them by any stretch and their passing game still made enough big plays to win. And I also think they did some things defensively in getting after the quarterback - something they’ve struggled with a lot this season (both teams actually did more in that respect than I anticipated, to be honest).
But this was still a loss to a pretty average team that is likely out of the bowl hunt with an absolute bear of a schedule still left that includes Clemson, Florida State, Miami, and Louisville. Pitt fans will be angry because these were games for the past two years that they would routinely win without trouble. This year, not so much, but that’s what happens when you have to rebuild a little.
I’m not panicked about the program in general. Rebuilding happens to everyone and the only difference is that rebuilding for teams like Pitt could be more like 4-8 instead of, say, 7-5 for a power program. But if you weren’t sure that year was a rebuilding season already, you most certainly should be now.