After falling behind 14-0 early, things got off to a rocky start for Pitt. The Panthers didn’t only look like they were going down but that it might be kind of ugly. I kind of expected the ‘Fire Narduzzi’ stuff to hit a fever pitch after today if it did. But Pitt took the lead, lost the lead, and finally retook it for a 44-37 win in overtime. And an hour-long weather delay was somewhere in between.
The overtime is easy to recap and kind of a microcosm for the game to some degree. Pitt did exactly what it had been doing, which was running the ball half to death, and capped off their possession with a Darrin Hall touchdown. Syracuse took a shot into the end zone, which was picked off by Therran Coleman to close things out. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey played okay today but also had some costly mistakes, and that was his final one.
Beating Syracuse in football doesn’t generally elicit much of a reaction from me. Now, that has little to do with the quality of their program so it’s hardly a shot. I typically just don’t get worked up much over any football games these days and, barring a win over someone like Penn State or a ranked team, I don’t usually get very excited the older I get. But if you couldn’t get a little pumped up after today’s win over Syracuse, you probably need to have your head examined. It was just an exciting game with lots of ups, downs, twists, and turns. Coming out on top in those sorts of games just usually means a little more.
No, the Orange aren’t elite. But they are pretty decent this year and, as I said before the game when I picked Pitt to win, I certainly considered them to be better than the Panthers. That still very well may hold true and a Pitt win today, to me, is still an upset to a degree. But I thought the two teams were closer than most believed. I don’t know that Syracuse was as good as their 4-1 record coming in just as I don’t think Pitt was necessarily as bad as their 2-3 record, just based on the quality of competition. The Panthers looked pretty ugly in those first five games, which was the main problem most fans had with the team. But you flip the schedules and I doubt the records are the same.
The primary reason I picked Pitt to win this game was because they had their backs squarely up against the wall. And if there was to be any salvaging of the season at all, a win today was mandatory. Given the rest of the schedule, I don’t see how a bowl was possible otherwise and, whether you like it or not, a bowl is the tangible goal here. Lose today, and that’s probably not happening.
I also went back to Narduzzi’s bold prediction of showing up in the ACC title game this year that he made at the annual preseason luncheon. Now, I don’t think we’re going to see that. But that was bold talk, even for Narduzzi’s standards. That tells me that he didn’t think this year’s team was going to be a dumpster fire and that he really believed they were pretty good. That’s debatable but I just didn’t see how a team like that could just throw the season away so quickly. So I took a chance on them.
Okay, it was a little more than that. Getting the game at home counted for something. I also thought Pitt could score some points. Over at the Syracuse SB Nation site, I answered some questions before the game. I was so busy this week that I never even got around to posting it here, which I generally do. But there, I called for a 31-28 Pitt win and a commenter mentioned that there was no way Pitt would score even 31 points. I thought that if Pitt was going to win they were going to have to score. And I really thought they would put points on the board today. I thought those guys were truly embarrassed with such a weak effort against UCF last weekend and expected a bounceback of sorts. A 44-point bounceback? Well, not exactly. But I did expect the team to find a way to score points.
Today, that all started (and ended, really) with the running backs. Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall ate the Orange alive today, finishing with 299 yards. Ollison had 192 while Hall had 107, and those two guys are really having nice seasons. Ollison, in particular, is on pace for a 1,200-yard season and when you have Hall right behind him with 100-yard games, too, the offense can do some nice things, even when quarterback Kenny Pickett still tries to figure things out.
Pickett again did not have a great day with only 137 passing yards. Even a bunch of that yardage was on a short throw to Rafael Araujo-Lopes, who then made a few moves on a 68-yard touchdown, doing almost all of the work himself. Pickett continues to show he needs more seasoning. He threw a bad interception just before halftime in the end zone that cost Pitt at least three points. He also missed a few other open receivers. But part of the low totals was simply because Pitt chose to run, run, and then run some more. The Panthers ran a total of 47 times and it even felt like more than that. Near the end of regulation with Pitt driving, they had 11 consecutive runs before kicking a field goal to send it to overtime. They took the ball out of Pickett’s hands and, well, it worked to perfection, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with playing for the tie at the end of regulation.
Further, he was also arguably missing the team’s best receiver in Taysir Mack. He and Mack are starting to develop nice chemistry but Mack sat out with some sort of injury. Take him out of the equation and the passing game is going to struggle even more.
As stated, Pickett has plenty to work on. And frankly, with as much as how Narduzzi talked him up after camp, I expected more. But he’s still a guy playing his first season of collegiate football and I’ll be critiquing him much more next year when he’s had more experience under his belt. To expect much out of him this year with an unproven receiving corps seems a bit unfair - whether he’s out there making mistakes or not. Many times, great receivers can cover up a quarterback’s inabilities. That’s not making excuses for Pickett, really. But when you put an inexperienced quarterback together with unproven receivers, expecting big passing games is a bit of a reach - particularly when you’re missing maybe the top receiver.
Defensively, I thought Pitt played pretty well in the secondary. I wasn’t real sure what the box would show after the game but it backs that up as Eric Dungey had only 195 yards and completed fewer than half his passes. Now, Dungey did give Pitt fits running the ball. Several guys couldn’t complete tackles and he lot loose more times than you’d like. But in terms of pass coverage, I don’t know that you’ll get much more from those guys. They forced him into a few mistakes, got a couple of interceptions, and really did a pretty nice job.
Dungey’s not a gunslinger by any means, so I don’t know that I’d look at this game and say it’s the turning point for a secondary that has struggled a lot. But in terms of today, they did pretty good in pass coverage.
Kicker Alex Kessman needs credit here, too. A lot, actually. With Ollison’s massive day, I don’t know if he’d get Panther of the Game honors when we used to throw those out here. But you can make an argument for it. Kessman had three field goals, including two over 50 yards, and a 45-yarder with all kinds of pressure to send the game to overtime. He’s had some adventures on extra points this year because of some holding issues but he’s actually 4-5 in field goals on the season and his lone miss came in the Penn State game when the weather was terrible. He was inconsistent last year as a freshman but those issues could be cleared up and, simply put, without him, Pitt probably doesn’t win today as he was superhuman out there.
A final word on the players in general, too. This recap has already gone long enough so I suppose I’m not doing much harm here. But these kids deserve a lot of credit. We’ve all kind of taken some shots at them when the team has looked awful in blowout losses this year but they showed an unbelievable amount of heart today. I picked Pitt to win coming in but I was just like everyone else when the team got down 14-0 and figured they’d have zero real chance at getting back in it. To fight back not once but twice when the team got down again later in the game was something to see.
Most of us don’t know these players. The only real connection 99% have with them is seeing them on television or in the stadium, wearing a uniform we’re familiar with, and hoping to God that they’re good at what they do. That’s it. But they’re real people, too. Like many of us that went to Pitt, they’re dealing with classes. With girlfriends. With jobs. With family issues. The same crap that all of us dealt with in college. Give these kids some credit. We’ve largely beaten them like a drum for a year and half now. It’s easy to be hard on them when we don’t think they show up but it should be even easier to applaud their performances when they put it all together. Those kids did a heck of a job today.
I’d even extend that, to a lesser degree, to the coaches. Not lesser because they’re any less human. But because they’re getting paid a lot of money to do what they do and, well, they don’t deserve the same kind of sympathies as full grown adults beyond their college years. We don’t like every play call. Don’t agree with everything they do. There were several things I didn’t agree with today. But they had a plan to run the ball and were going to stick with it. Guess what? Sometimes those guys know what they’re doing, too. Doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Also doesn’t mean changes don’t even ultimately have to be made. But it does mean that, sometimes, they get it right. And they, too, deserve credit when it all works out.
What does this mean for Pitt? Are they back? Let’s not get crazy here. This is still a program very much rebuilding and with a lot of work ahead. Narduzzi, I suspect, is still on a pretty warm seat - at least to much of the fanbase. Pitt faces Notre Dame on the road next weekend and, well, that’s probably going to be ugly. The fire Narduzzi chants will again be back and this win will be forgotten. Even if the Panthers play over their heads and keeps it closer than expected, hardly anyone will be calling for a win. But the Panthers needed to win this game to have any shot at a bowl, in my mind, and they did that. After the game against the Irish, contests against Duke and Virginia will probably determine their postseason fate.