Pitt’s bad night began with, if you can believe it, the opening kickoff. Despite winning the toss, Pitt’s captains stated the team wanted to accept the ball while Narduzzi wanted to play defense first. That unseemly mistake was a pretty big indicator of what was to come. The botches got bigger from there on their way to an ugly 51-6 loss.
I’m not going to go into the numbers here. They are certainly god-awful. If you’re into that sort of masochism, you can find the box here.
The first-half mistakes were there and they were plentiful. After a quick three-and-out, Penn State had a short field and scored easily. Then, trailing 7-0, Pitt scored a touchdown but missed an extra point to make it 7-6. Pitt later (admittedly, like Penn State) missed a field goal. Later, in what I considered to be a coaching mistake, Pitt decided to go for it on 4th and 3 close to the end zone instead of trying for a short field goal to take the lead. They missed and Penn State would go down the field later at the end of the half for a touchdown to take a 14-6 lead into halftime.
The Panthers, in this writer’s humble opinion, should have went into halftime with a three-point lead. Instead, they went in with an 8-point deficit and zero momentum on their side. It was encouraging that Pitt hung right there in the first half. But the scoreboard is the true indicator and some mistakes really cost Pitt. Things just really snowballed from there.
I know a lot of folks thinks those first-half mistakes were what did Pitt in. But in reality, the Panthers still only trailed by eight points. If that’s really too big of a deficit to make up, you need to probably pack it up as a football player. The early mistakes may not have helped but what really did Pitt in was how Penn State dominated the third quarter.
Dumb mistakes continued in the second half. On a particularly key play, Pitt held Penn State short after a third down play but the Panthers were called for roughing the passer by Patrick Jones to give the Nittany Lions a first down. They would go on to punch the ball in the end zone.
Later, with Pitt pinned back against their own end zone, offensive lineman Stefano Millin was called for holding in the end zone, resulting in a safety. Dane Jackson had a terrible block in the back preceding a very nice return on a punt by Rafael Araujo-Lopes. And speaking of Araujo-Lopes, he had some real issues with the wet football, botching a couple of punts, recovering drops. Pitt gave up a third quarter punt return touchdown. The punting was terrible. There were more, certainly. These were the highlights. Er, lowlights.
Care to go on?
None of this, of course, is to suggest that things would have gone differently if those mistakes eluded the Panthers. In the second half, Penn State pretty clearly proved they were the better team. Penn State also had a few miscues of their own, including key drops and penalties that brought back big gains. They were also called on a pretty weak roughing the passer play of their own against Kenny Pickett in the first half. But the point here is that if you’re Pitt and you know you have to play a pretty complete game here, well, those errors hurt. The Nittany Lions were more capable of allowing some bad breaks and Pitt really had to play a much more perfect game to win.
One result of several of those Pitt mistakes was that field position was really a mess for Pitt all game long. I don’t have the starting position for each drive handy but the Panthers were often deep in their territory while Penn State had great position. Pitt had a hard enough time moving the ball and when you consider where they started drives, that just made it worse.
Many hopes have been pinned on quarterback Kenny Pickett but he did not look good. All of that was not his own doing as he was often under pressure and wide receivers seemed to have a difficult time getting open. Pitt’s offensive line, in particular, was beaten like a drum. Repeatedly. I have a hard time putting too much of this at Pickett’s feet. But as I’ve stated before, this is still a guy with very little playing experience. He’s shown some potential but is still going to take some time to get better. Save for a few plays with his feet, he didn’t go out there and really manufacture any plays. Even if he personally was not a huge liability, the lack of a passing game certainly was.
I also don’t think the secondary looked good. McSorley didn’t have a field day but if his receivers held onto more balls hecould have. That so many guys got open continues to prove to me that Pitt’s secondary has a lot of weaknesses.
The disappointment here is not so much in the loss. I know a lot of fans had high hopes for the game but, in reality, Pitt was still nearly a double digit underdog at home. This was not a game they were expected to win. But when you lose in this manner, even worse than you did last year, it’s a pretty deflating thing. Pitt may have felt like they were ready to play but when you have that many early miscues and fold up in the second half, that’s where the disappointment is. Losing is one thing. This? This is quite another.
There’s going to be talk, obviously, about what some fans will interpret as douchebaggery by James Franklin at the end, opting to throw late in the game with it decided and with challenging a meaningless fumble call with one minute left in a 51-6 game. Classless? Sure it is. But you need the full buildup to put things into context. Narduzzi has also been an antagonist here and he and Franklin clearly don’t like each other. This type of stuff just happens in a rivalry and, given the bad blood between the two, I’ve got zero problem with it. Narduzzi does his fair share of poking the bear, too.
Narduzzi may still have Pitt headed in the right direction and there’s a lot of season left. This game, demoralizing as it was, really doesn’t have any bearing on the ACC standings. But there’s little doubt that losses like this one aren’t helping his cause with a fanbase that was expecting a much closer contest.
And, by the way, when you put so much emphasis on the game, it makes it that much tougher to swallow.