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Pitt comes from behind in crazy 54-45 win over Duke

NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After a tragic shooting today in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, football was probably the last thing on the minds of most of us. I’ve got nothing eloquent to say here and nothing that I could say would ease the pain the city is feeling right now, anyway. My thoughts and prayers are with all involved in this senseless tragedy and I hope the healing process begins quickly for them.

Heading into today’s matchup against Duke, I thought Pitt had a good chance to win. Then the game started and the defense was nowhere to be found. But while the Panthers struggled on that side of the ball, the offense was there to lead the way in a thrilling 54-45 win.

With a tied game at 45-45, Pitt was driving as if they were going to attempt a field goal. That was certainly the plan but with 13 seconds left, the Panthers were in a tricky spot. They wanted to get closer but also couldn’t risk time running out. They decided to take a shot at the end zone and Pickett, probably to the surprise of most, completed a perfect pass to Maurice Ffrench for a touchdown and a 52-45 lead with five seconds left.

The Panthers added two points on a safety as Duke attempted to pitch the ball back on the ensuing kickoff return that went back into the end zone and out of bounds.

That shot at the end zone was a pretty gutsy call, folks. A few bad things could have happened that would have had the fanbase up in arms. Maybe Pickett throws an interception. Maybe he’s sacked and time runs out. But it went perfectly as Pickett got protection, got a clean throw off, and Ffrench made a great catch. Even if he doesn’t catch it, you can’t draw it up any better. Incompletion and then you attempt the kick, anyway. That had to be a complete gut punch to a Duke fan.

If you’re a football purist who likes to see defense, you probably weren’t impressed with what you watched. But if you merely enjoy the ebb and flow of a game, this was about as exciting as a game as you could watch. It was back and forth, had big plays, included twists and turns and, if you’re a Pitt fan, resulted in a win.

That win, of course, looked anything but a given. The Panthers scored the first touchdown on a great run by quarterback Kenny Pickett but quickly lost momentum. Duke returned fire and the two teams traded more scores as Pitt trailed by four at the half, 21-17. That was nothing compared to the second-half fireworks on offense that we’d see, though.

I was concerned Pitt’s offense was going to stall but they didn’t. They kept scoring to the tune of 37 second-half points. Problem is, Duke kept scoring, too, and the Panthers trailed by as much as 11 in the second half.

Duke had three third-quarter touchdowns and Pitt’s defense was quite bad today. Much of this will fall on head coach Pat Narduzzi, as it should. He isn’t the defensive coordinator but you can bet he has input into what coordinator Randy Bates does. Many times in the game I was perplexed by how Pitt was lining up. There was a play late in the game as Duke was driving where the nearest defensive back was ten yard off the receiver. Pitt was clearly playing a zone of sorts and Duke did what any good team would do. They merely threw to the receiver who didn’t even head downfield, and with his defender so far back, he picked up a bunch of yards.

Iterations of this happened too often today. I don’t know why Pitt prefers to play that kind of lax coverage so often and Duke ate them up today. I suppose if you’re ahead and merely trying to prevent big plays, it’s okay. But when you need stops in a tight game, I don’t really understand it.

However, pinning this all on Narduzzi or Bates wouldn’t be fair. Two things stuck out besides the questionable coverages and that was poor tackling and guys taking terrible routes to the ball. Damar Hamlin completely whiffed on a tackle early in the game as Pitt gave up what should have been a short gain and turned it into a Duke touchdown. To the latter, there was a second half play where Elias Reynolds and Phil Campbell were overaggressive in their pursuit of a Duke player and, underestimating his speed, both were completely out of position to make a play giving up either a very large gain or a touchdown. I really hate singling those three guys out because, there were lots of other horrible plays on defense. I merely point them out as the ones I remember as being particularly egregious. I guess that’s coaching to a degree but at some point, players have to make plays.

The defense continues to be a huge frustration and it’s even more annoying because those guys looked they had turned a corner after playing so well against Notre Dame. To give up 45 points, 619 yards, and 28 first downs is just a train wreck of a performance. We’ve made arguments that this unit has turned the corner but when you see stuff like this, that’s clearly not true. This is a defense that is capable of doing good things at times but one that continues to have major problems at others.

Okay, let’s talk to something good. After all, this was a win. And it’s a really big one.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson deserves a lot of credit. He’s been a drum for fans all year long but he did a heck of a job today with the game plan. Designed runs by Pickett, working in Carter, taking a few shots downfield. I thought the game plan was beyond solid. And that included the incredible game-winning drive.

I’m not saying Watson has necessarily been good this year. But I’ve been watching enough Pitt teams to know that, no matter who the coordinators are, fans will always complain about certain calls. I don’t think it’s fair to pile on the guy when the offense looks terrible and not give him a shred of credit when it looks great. The offense did a heck of a job today and without it, the Panthers would have been blown out of the water. I thought Watson called a strong game today.

With that said, the big story on offense today, obviously, was freshman V’Lique Carter not only getting onto the field, but possibly being the MVP. If you were unfamiliar with Carter, you definitely weren’t alone. He’s not recorded any stats at all this season and, according to the broadcast, had been doing such a great player on the scout team that they had to put him in there.

Smart move.

Carter, who was recruited as a defensive back, had seven carries, mostly running sweeps, for a total of 137 yards and two touchdowns. It makes you wonder where he’s been all season. His ‘problem’, I suppose, is that Pitt is absolutely loaded at running back with the seniors Hall and Ollison leading the way and others, like Ffrench, getting carries, too.

Pitt’s sweeps have often been shut down but Carter had no issue, making plays nearly every time he touched the ball. The question now is, will he continue to play? Assuming he didn’t make any appearances earlier this year, he can play in three more games and still maintain a redshirt. Pitt only has four games remaining so, maybe if you can get away without using him in a game, you try to do that. But Pitt is also still in the thick of things for a Division title. If that continues and they need him in that other game, I think you play him by all means.

Carter had plenty of help in the running game. Qadree Ollison just looks better and better and I’m amazed at how good he’s become. He had another 149 yards today with a touchdown and did that only only 18 carries, averaging 8.3 yards per carry. Ffrench and Hall added 122 yards on 20 more carries and when you add in Pickett’s 76 rushing yards, Pitt had an incredible 484 yards on the ground today.

Speaking of Pickett, he had a very up and down game. He made some positive plays with his legs and it was great to see him getting back to doing that. He also completed a deep ball to Ffrench and then, threw a heck of a pass on the game-winning touchdown to Ffrench. But he also struggled, too, coming in off the mark on a few other throws. Ffrench looked particularly annoyed as Pickett threw a quick slant behind him earlier in the game. With the win, though, I’m inclined to say it was more good than bad.

I think he showed enough today to keep him in there but, man, is he inaccurate at times. He was only 8-18 for 150 yards today and he still doesn’t have a single 200-yard passing game this year. My gut is to trust the coaches on this one and, if they believe he’s the best guy they’ve got, then stick with him. Plus, Pickett got back to scrambling today and that just makes him much more effective. He’s not going to throw for 300 yards out there but if he can keep defenses honest with his legs and make a few throws, that might be enough.

The other factor with sticking with Pickett is that Pitt is very much playing for something and making a change this late in the season when you’ve got stuff on the line isn’t an ideal time to do it. If Pitt was out of the running for the postseason, maybe you consider a move. But they’re playing to reach a bowl game and, at 4-4, are close to achieving that. And by the way, they’re also playing to reach the ACC title game.

Thanks to a difficult non-conference schedule, Pitt is only 4-4. However, in conference, they’re 3-1 and, most importantly, control their own destiny.

Pitt still has a lot of hurdles to win the Coastal with games remaining against Virginia, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest. But the Division looks a little more winnable with the Hokies and Hurricanes struggling. Miami’s dropped two straight ACC games and the Virginia Tech was just routed by Georgia Tech, a team Pitt defeated.

Will that happen? Beats me. The problem for Pitt is that three of their last four games are road contests and the Panthers might have to run the table. But if you look at where they are now and what’s happened in the conference to date, it looks more realistic.

More importantly than how it looks, the fact is that Pitt is still in this thing by virtue of their win today.

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