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Pitt defeats Syracuse in error-filled garbage, er game

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The final record will show that Pitt defeated the Syracuse Orange, 27-20. The team moves to 5-2, Syracuse dropped a game they really needed, and the end result was a good one. Most importantly, Pitt remains right there in the Division hunt. But for even casual observers, the game was a virtual train wreck from start to finish.

There are lots of folks to blame for that. And if you’re starting anywhere other than the officiating, you’re looking in the wrong place.

The officials, as I say on the rare occasions I have to interject them into these ridiculously long post-game comments, are not a regular target of this blog. Officials, as you would expect, miss calls. Sometimes even important ones. But you live with that because they are human and trying to fairly and evenly officiate a game moving a million miles an hour with 22 players on the field that are, generally, at least half their age. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find such a display of incompetence as was on display tonight.

The officiating was baffling almost the entire way through the game. Some calls, however, were so egregious that they merit special attention.

On one such play, the officials threw a flag for what appeared to be taunting on Syracuse. They then explained that the Orange player in question was not taunting the Pitt sidelines. Rather, he was informing them they had a player injured.

Fair enough. Innocent mistake and, if that was the only problem the crew experienced, it would not even be noteworthy, save for the clumsy explanation. Unfortunately for the crew, it was not.

The officials bumbled their way through a comedy of errors. Stupid penalties for questionable plays. Once, a Syracuse player was called for a personal foul for a mostly harmless shove that resulted in nothing. But I want to call out a few of the really bad ones.

On one play, they gave Syracuse a fairly generous spot, choosing not to review the spot. Worse, on a second, Pitt appeared to have a first down but the officials chose not to review the spot, hilariously marking the Panthers short bringing up a 4th down. Pitt, in trying to determine their course of action was forced to call a timeout. The officials then decided, what the heck, review the spot. They then determined their initial spot was unfair and gave Pitt the first down, but still taking their timeout.

What?

Now, for the record, they are not technically obligated to do that. Nevertheless, the Panthers were clearly forced to burn a timeout due to the incompetence of the officials. And I’ve seen officials return those timeouts in such instances before. If the Panthers were not screaming, demanding their timeout back, they sure as you know what should have been.

But more head-scratchers came later, too. With the game nearing the end in the last quarter, Syracuse was driving for a touchdown (which they would get). Problem is, the clock was running down. The Orange ran for the sidelines, clearly not getting out of bounds being so far short that even the commentators were appalled at the spot. But out of bounds the player was and that stopped the clock, aiding Syracuse.

Probably the most egregious officiating was saved for last, however. Pitt was up by seven and hoping to close out the game. Running back Vincent Davis seemed to be down but fumbled the ball away (more like, he was stripped). The officials clearly had no idea what they wanted to call with a significant delay.

Likely after realizing the home crowd would boo them off the field, they ruled in favor of Syracuse before going to replay. The replay showed Davis’ knee down fairly quickly but the problem for Pitt is that none of the angles were even remotely conclusive. The only thing you could really surmise was that, based on how quickly his knee hit the ground, he was probably down before the ball could be taken. But again, not conclusive in the slightest.

Fortunately for Pitt, the officials disagreed, giving them the ball back and the Panthers ran out the clock after that on a sensational run by A.J. Davis to get a first down. There were also countless other questionable calls that were so strange that they were the constant target of the television commentary. I would argue that the initial fumble call was incorrect. That they ultimately got the call right, however, is not really the point. A call should not be reversed if it isn’t conclusive and the replays were, in fact, not at all conclusive.

I do not wish to take the livelihood of men away haphazardly but what the officials did in this game, with their indecisiveness and blatantly bad calls was criminal. There have to be more capable officials than this and, if not, you might as well let the coaches go out there and referee themselves. It surely would not be worse than this.

To Pitt’s opponent, Syracuse is not a good team, folks. That’s not punching down, it’s just a fact. They had no answers for Pitt’s admittedly good front four and really struggled to do much of anything offensively. I thought the Orange defense was adequate but the Panthers should have had this game won more easily. Any disciplined, capable team with the defensive line that Pitt has would have won this game by three touchdowns.

Your Panthers, however, are not a disciplined team.

That may not win over many readers but it still needs to be said nonetheless. The incompetence of the officials was rivaled only by Pitt’s own players at times.

As they did against Duke, Pitt raced out to a comfortable 24-6 lead, which they maintained into the third quarter. Not only did the Panthers have this game wrapped up fairly early but they did so against a team that had zero offense whatsoever and was down to its backup quarterback.

An then, the errors came.

First, Maurice Ffrench botched a fair catch, fumbling the ball and giving Syracuse great field position and an ensuing field goal. One would think that would be enough for Ffrench to learn his lesson and be a bit more cautious. But later in the game, he chose not to take a fair catch and was quickly drilled, remarkably hanging onto the ball. What he was doing in that situation is, I would surmise, something he could not even adequately explain.

After halftime with Syracuse pinned back on their own 6-yard line facing a 3rd and 9, Pitt’s coverage gave up a 94-yard touchdown pass.

Then there were the drops. I made this comment in the gamethread but I am not sure I can remember a team that dropped catchable balls so much. By my count there were three tonight and if you told me there were more, I could hardly disagree. One of those was particularly critical as Nakia Griffin-Stewart, dropped a wide open ball on a 3rd and 9 with Pitt in the red zone, forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal. Kenny Pickett is not always spot on accurate but we are not talking about balls that were difficult grabs. In all of the three instances, receivers had two hands on the ball and simply did not do their job.

Much like the officiating, though, Pitt’s players saved their worst for last.

On Syracuse’s next to last drive, Pitt was whistled for three pass interference calls — yes, all one on drive. The Orange ended up missing a long field goal but Pitt still was playing with fire by that point.

Next, up 27-13, Pitt gave up a long completion with about seven minutes left. Then, in the comedy of comedies, the Panthers gave up another pass interference call on 4th and 25 (!) as Dane Jackson was whistled. Jackson was at fault there but the commentators also wondered why Pitt was in bump and run coverage in that kind of passing down. In the words of Grima Wormtongue from the Lord of the Rings, ‘A just question.’ Syracuse would go on to score a touchdown giving us the final margin.

And of course, there was the late fumble by Vincent Davis, too, even if it wasn’t technically a fumble.

Look, none of this is to suggest Pitt didn’t play well and I do not mean to give that impression. On defense, in particular, they did for most of the game. The Panthers were incredible up front and had nine sacks (ten players at least half a sack, telling you everyone was in on the act). And it’s a shame because some other things, like A.J. Davis’ gritty run to get the final first down at the end of the game, were just really spectacular. There were some things that made you beam with pride because the team was playing with ruthlessness.

But that also doesn’t excuse the undisciplined play, the questionable defensive coverage schemes, or the boneheaded decisions. The Ffrench fumble. The four late pass interference calls. The Davis near fumble. The dropped passes. The 94-yard touchdown. All of it, at the end of the day, was one big disaster. Many times, the team seems to be just on the verge of playing out of control.

The reality is, the coaches and the players cannot continue to put themselves into these positions and expect to be taken seriously. 5-2 is indeed 5-2. But Pitt has taken an entirely unnecessary path to get there and if the coaches and players are not embarrassed about how they closed this game out, they sure as heck should be. It was a flat out embarrassment and nothing even remotely resembling disciplined football.

Nevertheless, Pitt is still 5-2 and very much in the hunt for the Division.

Whether or not they deserve to be after tonight’s fiasco is, of course, up to your own interpretation.

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