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Pitt comes up short in postseason (again) with 14-13 Sun Bowl loss to Stanford

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Stanford Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Another bowl game, another dud.

Pitt’s latest postseason football misadventure came today against Stanford in the Sun Bowl. The Panthers played well on defense but still managed to come up short, 14-13, in a game they seemed to dominate. The loss, if you’ve managed to lose track, is Pitt’s third consecutive bowl loss under Pat Narduzzi. Counting the ACC Championship game loss to Clemson, that’s four consecutive postseason games lost by Narduzzi’s teams.

It wasn’t quite 3-0 like Pitt’s last trip to the Sun Bowl against Oregon State. But the game definitely didn’t have the offensive firepower you might expect with Stanford’s passing game and the things Pitt has done on the ground. The teams scored a total of 27 points and I thought each team could have reasonably scored more than that on their own.

In general, I thought Pitt looked ready to play, which I guess is the good news. That was a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in the other two bowl games under Narduzzi, where Pitt was beaten badly by Navy and also defeated by Northwestern in what was generally seen as a very winnable contest. Pitt looked like the better team most of today’s game and I thought they looked ready. But you’ve also got to score points along the way and Pitt just botched too many early opportunities in the first half. I’ll get to that in a minute.

I know that some fans will discount these bowl games and claim they are only exhibitions. But unless you’re fighting for a national championship and to get into the Playoff, they are as much a part of the season as anything else in the non-conference, really. Don’t tell me this game against a good FBS program is less important than an early-season contest against a team like Albany or something. That’s ridiculous and at some point, you’ve got to start winning them.

The good news? The defense, in particular, really showed up. Stanford scored only 14 points and, more than that, just had trouble even gaining yards. Pitt had 18 first downs to Stanford’s 12. The Panthers also outgained Stanford with 344 yards to their 208. On Stanford’s first six drives, they had four three and outs and punted a total of five times. Things didn’t get much easier for them in the second half, either. Stanford was missing some starters on offense but Pitt’s defense was also very impressive and just by looking at the box score instead of the scoreboard, you’d expect this was a game the Panthers won.

Unfortunately, Pitt’s offense was nothing special.

Offensively, Pitt moved the ball well in the first half but had little to show for it. They were ahead 10-7 at the half, but it felt like Pitt should have been up by about nine or ten, to be honest. Most of the damage done, as usual, was on the ground game. But it was Darrin Hall carrying the load as Qadree Ollison went down with a foot injury early on. Fortunately for the Panthers, they still had Hall and he more than did his part. Hall finished the day with 123 yards and a touchdown.

But the frustrating thing was that Pitt couldn’t find a way to score more points, despite looking like the better team for most of the game. That’s because Stanford’s defense bent but didn’t break.

On Pitt’s first drive, they reached Stanford’s 39-yard line but had to punt. On the second drive, Pitt got to Stanford’s 30 before quarterback Kenny Pickett was sacked, taking them out of field goal range. On the third drive, Pitt scored a field goal but that was kind of deflating since they got all the way to the Stanford 4. Pitt got to the Stanford 6 in the second half before having to settle for a field goal. Later in the half, Pitt had a 1st down on Stanford’s 35 and had to settle for a long field goal attempt (which was a miss) from the 37. I said it in the game thread but it bears repeating — Pitt’s offense is not so good that it can afford to throw away opportunities like that.

Realistically, Pitt took a game they should have probably won by ten and managed to lose by a point.

Part of the problem is that Pitt again had no real passing game. Pickett was entirely underwhelming at quarterback for the nth time and it’s a movie we’ve seen far too much of. Some of that was due to being under pressure by a surprisingly good performance out of Stanford’s defense but some of it was his own ineptness.

One particularly frustrating sequence saw Pickett wildly overthrow a wide open Taysir Mack on a simple route of about 15 yards, throw behind running back A.J. Davis on a short pass, and then completely flub a pass on a quick slant. A good quarterback completes all three of those with little trouble. In all, Pickett was an abysmal 11-29 for 136 yards. That is just not enough — particularly against a defense that has not been real good this year.

And, of course, this isn’t the first subpar game we’ve seen from him. If it was, it would be less worrisome for the future. But Pickett has thrown for 200 yards this year only once and most of the time, he’s been well below that. 8 yards (still not a typo) against Clemson. 55 yards against Penn State. 61 against Virginia. 126 against Notre Dame. 130 against Miami. 136 today. Several games around 150 yards. Seven games without a touchdown (passing or running). You can’t win many games that way. Pitt has been fortunate in that Ollison and Hall have been so good on the ground but if you take that away (i.e. next year) and this offense can easily go from salvageable to a complete dumpster fire in the blink of an eye.

Pitt has weapons at wide receiver in Mack and Maurice Ffrench. The passing game actually has quite a bit of potential because of that. But if you can’t get those guys the ball, it doesn’t matter how good they are/can be. Why Pitt maintains this attitude of not throwing shorter passes is beyond me. Use the tight end. Complete 8-yard hooks instead of taking shots on 20-yard routes. Throw a 5-yard shovel pass and let a running back do the work from there. There are options and they were not adequately used this year.

I am not in the camp of benching Pickett or suggesting he can’t be a decent quarterback. He’s essentially a first-year player and unequivocally stating his career won’t be any good after one down season is premature. A lot of sophomore quarterbacks have work to do. But if Pitt is to do much of anything next year, he has to get significantly better. Maybe that happens by next year but maybe it doesn’t. Right now, he’s a player that isn’t real good and is a big question mark going forward.

Pickett didn’t do this one on his own, though. There were some odd coaching decisions as well. I think you can typically point to a few head-scratching moves by any staff, so I’m not going to go crazy here. But the biggest gaffe was arguably the decision to attempt a long field goal about halfway through the fourth quarter.

Trailing by only a point, Pitt attempted a 55-yard field goal. It’s not one of those calls that is 100% terrible based on Kessman’s leg and his history of big kicks. But, it’s also one of those kicks that if you miss, it could come back to bite you, as I said in the gamethread. And that’s exactly what happened. Stanford moved the ball about 25 yards or so and while they punted, they were able to pin the Panthers back inside the 5-yard line. That forced Pitt to throw with only a few minutes left and that was your ball game.

I’m not going to kill Narduzzi for that call because Kessman has nailed other 50-yarders before. And with limited time and a defense playing well, he probably figured the odds were with him even with a miss there. But it’s a call that you have to be prepared to explain as a coach if it doesn’t work out. And this one didn’t work out.

This one in particular stings because it isn’t only the third straight bowl loss but the third straight loss this season to end the year. Given that Pitt was once 7-4, that’s pretty discouraging. Does that make the season a bad one? I’ve said it over and over, but to me it does not. That’s only because expectations were so modest coming into the season. Pitt was expected to be around .500 and that’s where they finished — only they also made it to the ACC title game. It’s a frustrating ending to be sure but I’m not sure it’s the disastrous year that many will think it is, either. I get that opinion and can appreciate it because I know fans want more. I’m just not personally on that side.

For the most part, this was a team that lost to the good teams they faced and beat the weaker ones. And coming into the year, that was about what most of us would have expected or even signed up for. The only difference is that we saw them reach a conference championship game on top of that. Frustrating end? No doubt. But still not the worst season in the world, either, and not one that I would deem unsuccessful coming off of a 5-7 year.

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