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Pitt falls to Virginia Tech, 28-0

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt started today with a chance to win the ACC’s Coastal Division and get back to a conference championship game. But after a 28-0 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday, that dream officially ended.

I really wanted to pick Pitt to defeat Virginia Tech this week. The team has somehow found a way to win a string of ridiculously close games and those kinds of teams are hard to pick against. But, in adding everything up, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Hats off to Corey for also making the right pick.

Now, I don’t say that to gloat. I only mention it because my guess is that it was just as painful for him to do so as it was for me. Picking against Pitt when they’re a heavy underdog is easy. Doing so in games like this that look like they should be close is just a lot tougher. What I didn’t see, of course, is just how easy of a time the Hokies would have today. In the end, Virginia Tech dominated Pitt across the board and you take your hat off to that team. Those guys are relatively easy to root for and just played extremely hard.

Coming in, I ranked Virginia Tech as the second best team in the Coastal. And after today, well, it’s hard to disagree with that. The Hokies looked very much like the improved team they’ve been touted as while the Panthers looked uncharacteristically soft.

Pitt really had trouble all over the place in this one, folks. My concern coming in was that the offense would struggle playing in bad weather. But I figured Virginia Tech would have those same issues. Yeah, not so much. The Hokies didn’t score at will, exactly, but they were far less affected by the weather.

Losing wide receiver Maurice Ffrench exacerbated my concerns about the offense for this one. But that didn’t affect the dropped passes or the lack of a run game. And look, you can say whatever you want about quarterback Kenny Pickett, who had a rough game. But that kid has been killed this year by receivers incapable of catching even the most basic of throws. I cannot remember a group of Pitt receivers that has suffered so many drops. I can’t see how he could possibly have the confidence he should in making throws when guys are dropping passes left and right. My hunch is that, he’s affected by that, to some degree. That’s not to say he can’t be better — it’s only to suggest that he’s probably better than the box score will indicate.

The defense wasn’t great, either. They gave up 21 points by halftime and with the offense struggling badly, that led to the 21-0 deficit. Pitt’s defense, as usual, had its share of splash plays where they got to the quarterback, made big hits, etc. But they also missed several tackles (including one on a long pass play that set up a short touchdown), failed to get enough key stops, and allowed Virginia Tech to move the ball effectively in the first half. In the second half, they were better, but the game was out of reach by then and throw in another Paris Ford targeting call (meaning he’ll miss the first half of the next game against Boston College), and you’ve got an all around disaster.

I’m not going into another targeting diatribe here. Ford’s hit was clearly a helmet to helmet and I had no problem with the call based on the interpretation of the rule. But the reality is that Pitt very clearly has not adjusted to the rule and continues to have guys thrown out. They have to be more aware, particularly in games like this that sort of get out of reach, that you really can’t have those calls — especially in the second half since it carries over into the next game.

Now, I began an article this week that I really intended to finish. But I got overrun with some ‘life’ stuff and didn’t get to it. So indulge me a bit here.

The gist was that it was time for the football program to take the next step forward and that this could be the time to do it. As stated, I didn’t expect Pitt to win this game. But I figured it was certainly possible and that, by doing so, it would have been a really big deal.

When head coach Pat Narduzzi took over, Pitt had been mired as a mostly .500ish team, hovering around six wins. Just as importantly, the program was the butt of jokes and unstable after going through several head coaches in a short amount of time. He immediately got them to eight wins in his first two years, brought an entirely needed swagger, and the program has become markedly better, even pulling off some really big individual wins. Regardless of what you think of him, there is absolutely zero doubt that Narduzzi took the program to a next level.

While that was a welcome improvement, the Panthers haven’t pushed beyond that. The recruiting hasn’t picked up much. They missed a bowl game in his next season, going 5-7 in 2017. Then last year, they finished 7-7, losing their third straight bowl game under him. The end to last year was particularly disappointing as the Panthers dropped their final three games of the year to really end on a down note.

That’s not to say the program isn’t better than what he inherited. It is. And it’s surely not a reason to call for Narduzzi’s head or suggest he can’t get the program to the next level. That isn’t the narrative here. Pitt is still 7-4 this year and has a very good chance to get to eight or even nine wins. But a win today would have given Pitt a realistic shot at ten wins and been a dramatic improvement over where the program has been after Dave Wannstedt was dismissed nearly a decade ago. You get to ten wins, you get ranked, and you really have a shot at turning the corner. It’s one of the reasons that, for years, I have pushed for Pitt to schedule lighter. Win more games and it’s them that gets into the preseason Top 25 — not teams like Syracuse that we saw this year.

Will that guarantee long-term success? Nope. Some teams have a temporary spike in wins then go back to floundering. But winning ten games and getting onto the national radar does give you a better shot to get the attention of pollsters and recruits. Ten wins is a very significant number, which is why I talk about it so much.

Pitt is better but today’s game is the kind of game that proves they aren’t ready to really take that next step just yet. The Panthers have been good this year — no doubt about it. Further, there is promise for the future with some returning pieces on offense and an impressive defense that will mostly be kept intact. And to this season specifically, while the game was disappointing, it hardly means the team had a bad year. There are still games to be played and if Pitt finishes with nine wins, it will be the most wins Narduzzi has had in his career. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Pitt came into this season with a lot of questions and this was generally seen as a 5-7 win team. Eight wins would have been considered beating the odds and Pitt has a chance to surpass even that.

But it’s clear that Pitt is still waiting to take the next step forward as a program and really prove they can be more than a team that tops out at the ‘Others Receiving Votes’ level or the very bottom of the Top 25.

Narduzzi and crew have taken the program to higher heights than it was when they arrived. But they still have work to do to get to the next level and today’s disappointing game only emphasizes that.

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