After being shut out by Virginia Tech, Pitt’s football team hoped to bounce back against Boston College this weekend in the regular season finale. It was a game that looked quite winnable and the blueprint for the rest of the season was pretty clear. Win today, win a bowl, get to nine wins, and build some real momentum going into next season.
It wasn’t meant to be, though, as the Panthers (7-5) looked frustratingly flat in turning the ball over four times on their way to an ugly 26-19 loss to the Eagles (6-6).
There are no real excuses for a loss like this. Not an abundantly light crowd. Not a Thanksgiving hangover. Not Senior Day. Not anything. Pitt had four turnovers (three fumbles and a pick) and, just as importantly, had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Save for a brief 16-13 lead, things were a disaster from start to finish.
Those turnovers were the biggest problem. But they were part of a larger issue for Pitt today. I figured this game could more closely resemble the Miami game where the winner would be held to fewer than 20 points. But while it wasn’t exactly a shootout, it required more offense than the Panthers had and that’s been a common problem this year.
I didn’t imagine Boston College’s star running back A.J. Dillon would have the kind of game he did against Pitt with 178 rushing yards. You knew they would lean on him but I was surprised that the Panthers’ didn’t give him more of a challenge. Even when Pitt knew they were running at the end as they bled the clock, they couldn’t stop it.
This is why, as I wrote in the preview, you really hate to face a team that needs their finale for bowl eligibility. You’re going to get a team’s best shot and one that will play extremely desperate. That’s what we saw here. Boston College looked like a team that wanted this game while Pitt looked like a team that could do without it. I just didn’t envision Pitt losing this game and their carelessness on offense and issues on defense were both surprising to me.
Pitt just felt like the better team coming in and to lose this game, at home, on Senior Day, is tough to accept.
Is Pitt the better team? I mean, maybe. After all, if they take care of the ball, maybe the end result is different. The counter to that, of course, is that maybe that’s not true. Maybe Pitt has been held in higher esteem than they should have been. You look at the 7-3 record that Pitt had going into the Virginia Tech game and the Panthers looked like they were a team that could be ranked. But there’s also evidence that Pitt wasn’t quite as good as that record indicated.
See, just as Boston College had lost a lot of close games, Pitt had won a lot of close games. That the team may have been a bit overrated isn’t necessarily a new concept. People have been pointing that fact out all season long.
The thinking has gone like this. While Pitt had seven wins, they narrowly won almost all of them and was cheating death seemingly every week. Pitt was 7-5, which isn’t the worst record in the world. But realistically, they could just as easily be 5-7 — or even worse. You might remember that when the team was 4-2, I cautioned that they could just as easily be 2-4 or even 1-5.
Heck, this was a team that trailed Delaware in the fourth quarter before narrowly winning. The blown leads. The penalties. The lack of a running game. All the signs were there that this was a team with very real issues. Virginia Tech proved that and Boston College emphasized it.
So why did we (including myself) have such a hard time buying into the fact that this couldn’t be a great team? Simple. The problem was that the Panthers had their moments where they looked like they could be legitimately good.
A closer-than-expected loss to Penn State. An ‘upset’ win against Central Florida (that admittedly looks less impressive these days). We were all mesmerized at how much pressure the defense was getting on opposing quarterbacks and gushed at their No. 1 sack ranking. And the argument was that, after all, good teams win those sorts of close games while bad teams lose them. Pitt’s close wins, then, weren’t a negative but a positive.
But when you take the summation of it all, it’s hard to look at where Pitt finished and determine that this is anything more than an average team.
In the end, I think many of us were fooled at just how average this team was. This is, at its core, a terribly undisciplined team with a pretty good defense and a bad offense that has made some questionable coaching decisions on top of it. If you present those facts to Joe Fan about an anonymous team, the ‘average’ label would be about as positive a grade that might be given. No one in their right mind would consider those characteristics to equate to a team that was elite or even very good.
I’m not trying to take Pitt’s 7-5 season away from them. I’m really not. I think that, whatever label we try to affix to these guys or the coaches, they played hard and did a lot of good things. That’s always my fear with seasons that don’t end the way we want after expectations are increased — that we overlook a lot of the good moments. Pitt hung with Penn State in Happy Valley. Beat North Carolina for the first time since joining the ACC. Won six out of seven games. There were a lot of really fun moments in following this team and to dismiss those would be unfair.
And, frankly, let’s not forget that this was basically the ceiling for what most thought it would be coming into the year. Many teams have suffered worse losses, even this weekend, (looking at you Wake Forest) and to lose to a 6-6 team is not the end of the world. It is disappointing that the record was not better but I’m also not sure that it’s all that unexpected. This was a team with a new offensive line, questionable quarterback, and no running game. No matter how good you are defensively, those are some tough deficiencies to make up.
Expectations change during a season and I fully expected the team would win at least one of their final two games, no doubt. To be frustrated that they finished with only seven wins is not unreasonable. But I would argue in hindsight that the team appears to have been overestimated and, taking that into account, 7-5 is probably more in line with where they deserved to be. This is a program that clearly has a lot of work to do to improve.