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Pitt defense leads the way in 20-10 win over Georgia Tech

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing loss to Miami last weekend, Pitt rebounded nicely with a 20-10 win at Georgia Tech on Saturday. The goals are obviously higher than this but, for the record, the Panthers are officially bowl-eligible now. That’s always an important marker and that the team has achieved that already is a great reminder of what they can still accomplish.

For Pitt (6-3), it was another clumsy performance on offense. Two interceptions (one on a ball that was thrown a bit hard but still right in the hands of tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart), a lost fumble (albeit, on a questionable call), a botched snap on a crucial 3rd down at the end of the third quarter ... I don’t know. Just kind of frustrating to see that many things pile up again to keep the game closer than it really should have been. Add in having a punt blocked on special teams and the Panthers didn’t make it easy on themselves today.

Fortunately, the Panthers’ defense was again incredible. Pitt was magnificent on defense, despite being put into some tough situations. Georgia Tech’s touchdown certainly was on the defense on a long 51-yard touchdown reception. But their field goal came on a short field after a blocked punt gave Georgia Tech the ball inside Pitt’s 15-yard line. Other than a targeting call on Phil Campbell, the defense played a very clean game and just shut down the Yellow Jackets not allowing any other points. Add in another Paris Ford interception and you have about as good a game as you can play defensively on the road against a conference team.

The turning point of the game is an easy one. The Panthers held a seven-point lead in the third quarter and Georgia Tech had put together a great drive, getting down inside Pitt’s five-yard line. But on a quarterback keeper, the Yellow Jackets fumbled on a great hit by Kylan Johnson and Cam Bright returned it all the way down to the Georgia Tech 21. The game wasn’t exactly out of reach at that point but that really had to demoralize the Yellow Jackets. Pitt went down and got a field goal to make it a two-score game and provide the final margin.

A couple of interesting things on that play. First, if Georgia Tech holds onto the ball there and ties it up, any guess as to what happens the rest of the way? Me neither. You don’t rule Pitt out there, obviously, but there would be real questions about Pitt’s ability to put together a long scoring drive in a tie game. Perhaps, even, it’s a game the Panthers lose with a clear momentum shift in a road game.

Second, a really important decision was that of Bright to run the ball out. If I recall correctly, he recovered the ball in the end zone and could have simply downed it to take the ball at the 20. Instead, he made a sensational run and put the Panthers in field position to make the field goal and go up by two scores. Not much may be made of that decision by Bright and some of it was probably reactionary, but it was very important in the grand scheme of things just because the issues on offense the team was having.

So let’s talk about that offense. Another tough game, right? Look, the turnovers are clearly a major problem. But I also think there’s something Pitt can do to help themselves — and that’s taking some more shots downfield.

A big emphasis is on how much the Panthers are passing the ball. They are throwing a ton and are among the nation’s leaders. But so many of the passes are of the ultra conservative variety and are really short routes. Case in point, Maurice Ffrench is a playmaker and capable of breaking off big plays. He had a career-high 11 catches today but they were only for a total of 71 yards.

A really funny instance of the ridiculously short passes was when Pitt had a 3rd and 4 and completed a two or three-yard pass, falling short of the sticks and having to punt.

A casual fan might point out that Pitt has to at least throw the ball past the sticks there and that’s usually the philosophy. But I don’t know that those deliberately short passes aren’t by design. Pitt has been trying to throw short, get guys in space, and allow them to make plays with their legs. I get what they’re trying to do but sometimes, you’ve just got to air it out a bit.

Pitt probably isn’t poised to do a lot of that with Pickett’s accuracy in question, even with some athletic guys like Ffrench and Taysir Mack. And you have to think that a lot of these shorter routes are designed to keep Pickett out of trouble with careless throws. But if you don’t ever throw deeper, defenses clog the field up and make it hard for the shorter passes to work. That’s an overly simplified explanation but you get the point. It would be different if the offense was having success with what they are doing but they aren’t. At some point, you’ve got to change what you’re doing.

Those quibbles aside, I think Pitt mostly played fine. I don’t know that they played well enough on offense to beat a good team but they did enough to get the job done today. Plus, it’s also not as if they didn’t move the ball at all on offense as quarterback Kenny Pickett did (just barely) get up over 200 yards and the Panthers added another 158 on the ground. That’s not a great output, obviously, but they did make some plays on offense. The two picks and the fumble really put an end to what could have been more points but it’s hard to get too upset about that when you win.

Conference road win, remain in the Coastal hunt, bowl eligibility — some really good things came out of today’s win.

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