Pitt’s season has been one of ups, downs, and close games, so what was one more?
Pitt was down early, trailed most of the game, and then came alive in the game’s final minutes to pull out a thrilling 34-30 win over Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. Taysir Mack made a ridiculous grab with less than a minute remaining in the game to give the Panthers their first lead of the game while the defense held on for the win.
I said in the game thread that this was the kind of game that could sort of leave Pitt ripe for the picking. Disappointing end to the regular season, lackluster bowl, MAC opponent in a virtual road game — if you have been watching football for any length of time, you could put those things together and see a reason for Pitt to struggle in this one.
Despite all of that, I didn’t think that would be the case. I figured the Panthers would be chomping at the big to get to eight wins and bounce back from a pair of really bad performances against Virginia Tech and Boston College. That would, conceivably, lead to a relatively easy bowl win against a MAC team that was not so great this season.
Yeah, had that one wrong.
Look, as I said in the game preview, the biggest factor with these bowl games is you just never know what you’re going to get. Players sit out these days, others are unmotivated, and you’ve got teams that haven’t played a game in a few weeks. It just all adds up to a pile of questions. These are the kinds of games that should make even the most compulsive of gamblers run in the opposite direction.
Also in that preview, I talked about Eastern Michigan’s problems on defense. I figured that, if nothing else, Pitt would score some points. And they did with 34 of them. The concern was that you didn’t want to see the Panthers get into any kind of a shootout and, unfortunately, that’s what you had a little bit with Eastern Michigan putting up 30.
Before we get too far down the line, congratulations are in order for senior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench. Ffrench had a heck of a game with 12 catches for 165 yards, capped by a sensational breakaway 96-yard touchdown catch and run that was the longest Pitt pass play in history, per the broadcast. He also broke Larry Fitzgerald’s single-season Pitt record for catches (previously 92). It’s also noteworthy that he did it missing a few games and in two fewer games than Fitzgerald needed.
Now, a lot of those passes have been of the shorter variety. That is why you haven’t heard Ffrench’s name mentioned anywhere near the top of the list in terms of college football’s best receivers this year. The fact is that he came into the game with 84 catches but had only 685 yards, a pretty meager total for that many grabs. But when you catch as many passes as he did this year, it’s still a noteworthy achievement. Give Ffrench those two extra games and he almost certainly clears the 100-catch mark. That’s just an insane amount of grabs whether they’re going for 50 yards or five yards. And, as he proved tonight with that long catch and run, he’s plenty capable of making big plays.
Ffrench was Kenny Pickett’s biggest target but the Pitt quarterback had a lot of success spreading the ball around, too. On the night, Pickett threw for 361 yards, three touchdowns, and did not throw an interception. Strong overall game by him and that even included some critical drops. Again. Ffrench himself had a big drop on that final drive.
Defensively, the team wasn’t great. They allowed 30 points, gave up 300+ passing yards, and didn’t get the kind of pressure up front that they typically do, resulting in only two sacks on the night. But fortunately, the offense was able to do just enough to win.
How the defense looks next year will be something to watch. Jalen Twyman has already said he’s coming back but safety Paris Ford, arguably Pitt’s best defender, is undecided. If the Panthers lose him that would be a big blow to a secondary already losing Dane Jackson and Damar Hamlin. I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole right now but the Ford decision is going to be a big one. He was noncommittal after the game.
There are a lot of ways to look at the game tonight. You can point out all of the obvious flaws, say Pitt should have had an easier time, and be disappointed with a somewhat lackluster performance. I can’t really argue with any of that. But the simple fact is that Pitt won the game, got to eight wins, and gave Pat Narduzzi his first bowl win. No one is going to remember the nonsensical back-to-back bubble screens on critical 2nd and 3rd down plays late in the game or Hamlin’s silly celebration penalty. They’ll remember that this team got to eight wins and won a bowl.
Save for a few guys, I don’t think it was a great performance by Pitt. Still, it was enough to win and that’s what the result had to be here. Like they did so many times, they fought back at the end of the game and, if nothing else, you’ve got to credit the team for making plays under pressure.
The season’s officially in the books and the Panthers finish with an 8-5 record. We can look back at the missed opportunities but I think most people would have signed up for that coming in given the question marks on offense.