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Pitt outgunned by Georgia Tech in ACC opener, 35-17

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a promising start to the game, Pitt dropped its third consecutive contest when it opened up ACC play on the road against Georgia Tech on Saturday. The final score was 35-17, and although it wasn’t quite the crushing disappointment that last week’s loss to then-No. 9 Oklahoma State was, it confirmed that the Panthers still have a lot to straighten out before they get back to playing winning football against legitimate competition.

The Panthers looked energetic coming out of the gate, as Ben DiNucci started under center for the first time this season and seemed to provide his signature “spark.” On the first drive of the game, Pitt’s offense appeared more balanced and dangerous than it had all season. Qadree Ollison looked like his old self early on, opening the drive with a nine-yard gain, and Jordan Whitehead made his presence known with a 30-yard run.

DiNucci also completed his only two passes of the brief drive, which included an eight-yard strike to tight end Matt Flanagan for a first down and a beautifully lobbed pass to Ollison for a 28-yard touchdown. When all was said and done, it took Pitt just five plays and about two-and-a-half minutes to travel 78 yards downfield and put seven points on the board.

Matters only improved when the Pitt defense took the field, as Georgia Tech’s lauded backfield couldn’t get anything going on its first drive. The Yellow Jackets ran the ball three times in three plays, which was pretty much what was expected. However, they gained just seven yards before turning the ball over on a KirVonte Benson fumble, which was recovered by Whitehead on Georgia Tech’s 33-yard line.

And that was the moment Pitt’s troubles began.

Whatever magic DiNucci had summoned in the first drive was already gone. Despite great field position, the Pitt offense was unable to get anything going, as the Panthers mustered just one yard in four plays before marching out kicker Alex Kessman for a 50-yard field-goal attempt that would bounce off the upright for a miss. For his part, DiNucci threw two incompletions on two attempts, one of which was an ill-advised shovel pass into traffic.

After that, Pitt’s offense stagnated and was forced to punt on its next three drives. The defense also started to crack a bit, as Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall got into a rhythm and was able to run in touchdowns on two consecutive drives.

From that point on, the Pitt offense was unable to keep pace with Georgia Tech’s high-powered rushing attack, but it seemed like the Panthers’ special teams unit might be able to keep things close heading into halftime.

Quadree Henderson was finally able to step up for Pitt, scoring on an 80-yard punt return in the second quarter. His touchdown tied the game at 14 after Marshall’s two touchdown runs, but the Yellow Jackets regained the lead when Benson punched in another score a few minutes later.

Pitt ended the half with a successful kick by Kessman from 55 yards out. It was somewhat reminiscent of the 2015 matchup with the Yellow Jackets, when then-kicker Chris Blewitt nailed a 56-yard game-winner. However, Saturday’s game would not be decided by a kick, and unfortunately, those would be the last points for Pitt all day.

The Yellow Jackets pulled away in the second half, scoring 14 unanswered points. But they provided the Panthers with plenty of opportunities to get back in the game, and that was perhaps the most disappointing thing of all on Saturday.

Georgia Tech turned the ball over four times, and the Panthers failed to cash in on even one of those mistakes. The defense seemed to pull its weight toward the end of the game, as the Yellow Jackets were forced to punt on three of their seven second-half drives and Pitt defenders ended two more by collecting fumbles.

But what it all came down to, yet again, was the inability of the Pitt offense to put the ball in the end zone on a consistent basis.

The running game was a major factor in the offense’s struggles, as Pitt was only able to accrue 37 yards on 20 rushes for an abysmal average of 1.9 yards per carry. And aside from the opening drive of the game, the passing game wasn’t particularly stellar, either.

DiNucci completed 63 percent of his 19 passes and scored once, but he wasn’t able to get anything going at all in the second half, as Pitt punted three times and turned the ball over on a botched hand-off with him under center. After that, Pat Narduzzi had apparently seen enough and replaced him with Max Browne in the fourth quarter.

Browne accounted for 88 yards, dinking and dunking his way through garbage time and failing to get much done himself. With Browne helming the Pitt offense for the last three drives, Pitt punted, turned the ball over on downs and then failed to reach the end zone before the clock ran out.

Given Saturday’s events, it seems safe to say that the quarterback controversy will rage on for another week. But with DiNucci and Browne posting similarly disappointing numbers against Georgia Tech, the debate over who should lead Pitt’s offense may not be quite as impassioned as it was leading up to Week 4.

Next up for Pitt are the Rice Owls, who are 1-2 on the season heading into their matchup with Florida International tonight. Though it’s tough to be optimistic after three straight losses, Rice does represent a step down in competition from Georgia Tech and the game will be played at Heinz Field. So if the Panthers can iron out their offensive issues, they should have an opportunity to turn things around in Week 5.