On Saturday, Pitt took another step back in the Pat Narduzzi era with a disappointing 38-35 loss to North Carolina.
The defeat on its own was somewhat shocking. The Tar Heels have indeed owned the Panthers since the latter came into the ACC. But this was still a team playing without several suspended players and one that had not looked all that competent to date this year. Particularly, North Carolina’s passing game had been a train wreck and the Panthers still could not stop it. Further, you expected that after last year’s loss to the Tar Heels, Pitt would be out to prove something.
But while it was a bad loss from an individual standpoint, it’s also the latest in several miscues for the team under head coach Pat Narduzzi after his fast start with the program.
Now, Narduzzi isn’t suiting up out there and he’s not the one making the plays on the field. But this is, of course, his team. And it’s a team that has had a lot of bad press lately.
Last year was when things started to go south in the minds of many, but you actually have to go back to the end of the 2016 campaign for the beginning of Pitt’s problems.
Pitt had just wrapped up a successful regular season defeating both rival Penn State and eventual national champion Clemson. The Panthers went 8-4 and had, by their account, a really nice year. They then went into the Pinstripe Bowl where they faced a Northwestern team that could be beaten. That game was supposed to help propel Pitt into 2017 and really give them a bit of momentum as they likely would have been ranked with a win. The Panthers, though, were defeated in the bowl game. No rankings, no buzz. I still maintain that Pitt had a good year that season but that Northwestern game really put a damper on things.
That was only the beginning, though.
Pitt started off 2017 needing overtime to beat Youngstown State before being pounded by 19 at Penn State in a game that wasn’t even that close. The Panthers then were utterly embarrassed at home in an ugly 59-21 loss to Oklahoma State. For good measure, they were then beaten by 18 by Georgia Tech.
Those losses, all right in a row, really brought out concerns. It wasn’t necessarily the 1-3 start from a record standpoint. Rather, it was how the team lost. To that point, Narduzzi’s regular season losses were generally pretty close. Pitt’s four regular season losses in 2015 were by a combined 27 points - on average, about a touchdown per game. In 2016, only the Miami game looked ugly, with the Panthers losing by 23. The team’s other three losses were by a combined 11 points.
The theme here was pretty simple. Narduzzi wasn’t going to win every game but, usually, things would be pretty respectable, even if the final score in a few of those games wasn’t truly indicative of the contest. 2017 changed all that with three brutal losses all in a row.
The year wouldn’t end there. Pitt would lose to Syracuse. And to a terrible North Carolina team. They’d have another embarrassing loss with an 18-point defeat to North Carolina State. Sure, they’d rebound and pull off an upset over No. 2 Miami in the finale but by that point it was too little too late as Pitt would miss a bowl game for the first time in a decade.
Making a bowl game is really sort of a bare minimum for a team like Pitt. The Panthers aren’t going to compete for national championships but really what most fans want is just some level of respectability. And while we can debate the meaningfulness of a garbage bowl, at least in going 6-6, you’ve avoided a dumpster fire. Pitt couldn’t do that and you really had a bad season.
Thus far, things have snowballed into this year. After a mandatory win against FCS Albany, the Panthers were embarrassed in a horrendous 51-6 loss to Penn State. As I’ve said before, Pitt kept that game close for more than a half and the final score was much worse that it should have been. But it’s still the final score and, thus, what people will remember. Losing that badly to anyone would be a problem but when you lose like that in a game you publicly deem to be very important, it’s even worse. Few would blame Narduzzi for his team’s inability to win the game. But when you are routed like that, at home, on national television, when you are revealing a Hall of Fame class and as you’ve been hyping the home schedule around that one game ...
Despite that outcome, Pitt still had a chance for some measure of redemption. The Panthers rebounded with a Georgia Tech win and faced a very beatable North Carolina team today. A win here would have put the team at 3-1, giving them some momentum heading into a very big game at Central Florida. Instead, Pitt is now 2-2 after yet another disappointing loss and looking for answers.
As I wrote earlier, this is not a plea for Narduzzi’s head. Pitt still has eight games left this year and I think he should be judged on how the team finishes the season. Further, I generally don’t believe that changing coaches every few years does any program that much good.
But over the last 17 games, things have not gone real well for a head coach that got off to such a promising start.