Pitt losing a game to No. 5 Notre Dame wasn’t surprising. Rather, the manner of the loss is what raised eyebrows.
In a nationally televised game where even fans not particularly interested in either team tuned in, the Panthers (3-4) lost a closer than expected contest to the Irish (7-0), 19-14.
Many Pitt fans will feel the team should have won the game, of course. You can make that argument. Pitt led most of the game and had a 14-12 lead late until an Irish touchdown in the fourth quarter put them ahead for good. One more play on that Notre Dame drive and the game could have gone much differently.
The real story for Pitt (other than a terrible offensive output, anyway) were the two missed field goals by Alex Kessman. Kessman proved to us that the kicking game can just be so darn fluky after nailing two 50-yarders last week against Syracuse and then missing a 47-yarder and a 36-yarder. Those kicks will haunt Kessman for a good long while and, well, he doesn’t need me piling on. They were big and he didn’t come through.
I’ve got nothing here. Not because they weren’t important kicks - there’s just not much to add. To win games like these, if you’re a team like Pitt, you really need to play a pretty perfect game. That’s even more the case when you consider how little offense Pitt got today. You can’t afford to miss those kicks to win a game like this and that’s particularly true with both teams scoring fewer than 20 points each. The 47-yarder certainly is no gimme. But those are just plays you need to make when the offense isn’t getting into the end zone.
This isn’t all on Kessman, of course. He had help - rather, a lack of it. Pitt’s offense today was (again) pretty bad. The team scored 14 points but seven of those came on a kickoff return for a touchdown by Maurice Ffrench. Even the seven offensive points came on a drive that was stalled and bailed out by a 4th down penalty by Notre Dame as Pitt was preparing to punt.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett again was a non-factor with only 126 yards passing, including no touchdowns. He didn’t have any turnovers but had at least one ball that should have been picked off. It seemed to me that he was looking to run a little bit more, which is what I think he should be doing. But that was limited, too, and he’s just not the dual threat guy that he looked like before. The Panthers were again missing Taysir Mack due to injury and I think there’s an argument that he’s their best wide receiver. But, regardless, Pitt’s offense has to do more than that.
The running backs did their job today. Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall combined for 112 yards, but that was with only 23 touches. Pitt dragged the clock out today, as they should have, and that meant those guys weren’t getting as many carries as they did last week against Syracuse.
People will complain about the offense but the reality is, if you don’t have a quarterback that can throw the ball or receivers that can catch it, you’re not going to go very far. It’s not only that, either. Pitt has no threat of a passing game so teams aren’t going to respect it much. Until Pickett and the receivers get more effective, you’re going to see offensive days like this one. As they proved last week, they can score points. But when you’re facing outstanding defensive teams like Notre Dame, points are a premium.
By contrast, the defense was beyond encouraging today. I didn’t think the secondary playing well against Syracuse proved all that much but those guys again played a solid game against Notre Dame. There were a few breakdowns, particularly on that last drive. But the unit looks to be getting better. I still wonder if some of that is fools gold because I think Pitt really kept Ian Book guessing today with a number of blitzes and what not. But the secondary could be turning a corner here. We’ll just have to see if it keeps up.
I can’t stress this enough. The game plan today was practically perfect, in my mind. Not that the Panthers didn’t do anything questionable. Having Jeff George, Jr. come in off the bench to throw on a fake punt late with the game on the line didn’t make much sense to me when Notre Dame was certainly watching for a fake. I’d much rather have run the offense out there in a Wildcat or something. But, aside from that, I’ve got no major issues. The defense was lights out and coaches don’t kick field goals. Plus, while not scoring points, Pitt’s offense ate up some clock at times. They didn’t score enough points but the plan, really, was pretty good, in my opinion. Pitt fans have been clamoring for a good game plan from the coaches and I think they got it. It’s up to the players to execute.
I don’t know. I’ve got a hard time being too upset here. It would have been great to beat the Irish but to get that good of a game from them was great to see. Plus, it’s not a conference game and doesn’t even hurt in that regard. That’s going to be of little consolation for many of you but, it is what it is.
Pitt has a bye next week then will host Duke the following weekend.