After taking a step forward against Georgia Tech last week, Pitt seemingly took two in the wrong direction, losing to North Carolina on Saturday, 35-28.
As I wrote in the preview, North Carolina did not have the look of a great team. Sure, the game was on the road. And yes, the Tar Heels have had Pitt’s number since the Panthers got into the ACC. But with North Carolina still battling several suspensions, this seemed like one that Pitt should win. Oddsmakers agreed as the Panthers were the favorite coming in.
So much for that, right?
I mean, maybe you don’t win this if you’re coming off a 2-10 season and your goal is to get to four wins or something. But if you’re Pitt and trying to make any kind of splash this year, come on, you have to have this one.
This was really a tough game to lose for any number of reasons. But, specifically, if you’re the type of fan that likes looking ahead on the schedule and envisioning potential scenarios, you really had to hate this one. Pitt has not been great this year but they were 2-1 with a very winnable game today. Maybe that momentum carries into Central Florida next weekend and they pull off an upset. Then you’re suddenly looking at Syracuse before a big matchup against Notre Dame. The ultimate optimist could have seen a 5-1 record with the Panthers even receiving Top 25 votes.
Instead, the team now sits at 2-2 and there is a very real possibility the train is off the track by the time that Notre Dame game rolls around. The yin to that optimistic yang would not so subtly point out that Central Florida is really good. And that Syracuse has looked better than expected in a 3-0 start. You get to Notre Dame and, quite easily, the Panthers are instead 2-5 after that one.
I’m not saying that Pitt can’t somehow be in the middle and that there’s no gray area. Likely, in fact, neither of those scenarios would have been (or, in the case of the second, are) exactly right. But what today’s loss did was take the little bit of optimism Pitt fans had and throw it out the window with all the tact of that chick in the cable TV commercial tossing her ex-boyfriend’s belongings outside.
So what did I think of the actual game? Well, I thought we’d have a better handle on this year’s team after today. I really tried to avoid figuring out who Pitt was at this point. Part of that was because it was so early in the year and the other part was because of the opponents. They had one game against an FCS team, another against a highly ranked team that wants to challenge for a national championship, and one against a team that runs a unique offense rarely seen. I mean, unless you go undefeated or winless there, how do you judge a team in those circumstances?
Defensively, Pitt continues to struggle in the passing game. North Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott has been horrible this season. He came in to the game completing around 50% of his passes, had one touchdown, and four interceptions. Naturally, he came in and lit up the secondary with more than 300 yards passing, a couple of touchdowns, and no picks.
It’d be one thing for Elliott to look salvageable but how he turns into an All-American today is kind of ridiculous. There were blown coverages, as usual, like the touchdown pass right down the middle of the field with no defenders even in view. On another touchdown, Paris Ford looked entirely lost. It wasn’t just the coverage, either. On an early score for for North Carolina, Dennis Briggs complete whiffed on a tackle that made a modest gain a touchdown.
And even when Pitt managed somewhat decent coverage, as Dane Jackson had on a defender on a deep ball, they often found themselves beaten, anyway. Part of that, as it always is, is about not getting enough pressure on a quarterback. But you’d really hope those guys would be farther along and making fewer mistakes.
I know there was hope that Narduzzi, as a defensive guy, would have the unit playing well by now. But Pitt also lost two NFL players from a unit that had already struggled. Like I’ve said before, that’s a lot to make up. That’s no excuse for Narduzzi, mind you. The idea is that you’d have other guys ready to step up. And to struggle the way they did against a team that had done so poorly in the passing game coming in was a bit of an eye opener. The losses of Whitehead and Maddox, however, clearly aren’t helping.
And I know others will think this is relatively minor but Pitt’s punting hasn’t been real good this year. Kirk Christodoulou managed only about 36 yards per punt today while North Carolina got almost 46 yards per punt. That might not seem like a lot but ten yards per possession is a huge deal. Even taking out the holding issues Christodoulou had in the Penn State game with the bad weather, he hasn’t been real effective and field position has generally been pretty bad for Pitt. That’s a tremendous disadvantage.
Finally, the second half scoring woes were kind of cute through the first three games. I don’t mean cute in an aesthetic way as much as I do cute in that it wasn’t really a factor. It was something discussed but not anything that ultimately mattered. Pitt blew out Albany and didn’t need second half points. They also didn’t need them last week in narrowly defeating Georgia Tech. And while the Penn State game was close at halftime they took control in the second half and even scoring a couple of touchdowns there wouldn’t have mattered. Plus, with the weather in that game, we could sort of write that off, anyway.
But today, we saw that Pitt has, for whatever reason, a tangible problem in scoring points in the second half. And, well, it cost them. Pitt had a 28-21 halftime lead but managed to only score seven points in the second half. Even those came when North Carolina had a late ten-point lead and the game was slipping away.
I don’t know what the issue is. It seems like coaches are making effective second-half adjustments against whatever Pitt is doing and the Panthers are finding what worked in the first half isn’t continuing to work. But can it really be as simple as that? Sure, maybe it happens once or twice, but four times? Every defensive coach Pitt faces can’t be a genius and able to fix everything by halftime. Some of this, I suspect, is just plain, dumb luck. Whatever the reason, Pitt can’t continue on like this getting no offensive production in the second half. As we saw today, the defense is not going to play lights out and pitch shutouts so unless Pitt gets out to a big lead, they’re going to need to score points.
That’s not to say this team isn’t doing anything right. Kenny Pickett continues to look competent at quarterback, despite not playing a great game. He’s got a lot of work to do and his overthrow of a wide open Taysir Mack late in the game at a critical point shows he has some accuracy issues. But ‘competent’ is a heck of a lot better than what Pitt got last year at the position. The running game continues to be impressive and the Panthers got 6.3 yards per carry with three guys all breaking off nice runs. And Taysir Mack looks like he could be a special receiver if Pickett can deliver the ball to him. But those guys are all also part of an offense that can’t score points in the second half so take that how you will.
Those bright spots, though, just don’t matter much when you lose. As Pickett said earlier this week, wins and losses are the only barometer here and that’s what coaches are judged on. So when you see disappointing games like this, the obvious rush is to nudge Narduzzi closer to the hot seat. I generally think it’s kind of fruitless to do that at this stage and, while I’m not going to get into an argument to defend him right now, I think we’re all better off at least letting this season play out. Ugly loss? Yep. Perhaps there will be more. But the idea of calling for Narduzzi’s head at this point is just dumb.
I’m not real thrilled with where Narduzzi has things right now. The recruiting has not been overly good. A few games against better teams the last two years have gotten out of hand on the scoreboard. Pitt is coming off of a season where they missed a bowl game for the first time in a decade. The team looked quite bad in the last two rivalry games with Penn State. And now you’ve got games like this one. I can see why the fanbase is starting to turn on Narduzzi.
Still, we’re 1⁄3 of the way into the season. Maybe the season gets better, maybe it gets worse. Until we see how that plays out, though, I’ve got a hard time making rush judgments right now. Even beyond the arguments that coaches often need five, six, or even seven years to build up weaker programs (i.e. see Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech), I mean, can we at least see how this year plays out before coming with pitchforks and such? Those pitchforks might ultimately be needed but I think we’re all a lot better off at least waiting to see how this year unfolds. I get that’s not fun. Fans love booting coaches out and bringing in the next top assistant, etc. But some measure of patience is also the more reasonable approach, in my eyes.
What’s this mean for the season? Well, if you’re in the athletics department and hoping for big crowds the rest of the way, this just takes the wind out of the sails. And as a fan, you can’t help but look at a very winnable game and scramble to find enough victories to get to the bare minimum of six you’d like to see them hit. Pitt has a challenging schedule this year and I maintained before, they need to win games like this. The Panthers still have four ranked opponents left and when you’re out here losing games like these, it doesn’t bode well.
I will say this to those of you seeking some reason to continue watching this season. When you’re trying to compete for a Division title as Pitt has very clearly stated as the goal, you’re actually better off losing these sorts of games than games to the better teams. The reason for that is that a team like North Carolina isn’t likely to challenge for the title. You expect them to lose more games along the way so they shouldn’t factor in. Losing to teams like Virginia Tech and Miami, while more respectable, are the teams you really can’t afford to lose to as you don’t expect them to lose many conference games and Division titles can come down to head to head matchups. So, in a sense, this game might not be the killer that it seems in that context.
The flip side, of course, is that if you can’t win these games, how do you expect to beat Virginia Tech and Miami in the first place?