The stage was set with great weather, new uniforms, a home night game, and a conference opponent in a nationally televised opener. But the Panthers weren’t up to the task and looked plenty sluggish in a brutal 30-14 loss to Virginia.
I figured the Panthers could lose to Virginia. Many people did. As I said in my prediction, I was going with Pitt here in a close one largely because they had the game at home but would have gone the other way with the game at Virginia. But I didn’t expect to see the team come out so abundantly flat with so much on the line.
None of this is to suggest Virginia isn’t a good team. They beat up on Pitt and they clearly are, though I think the verdict is still out on if they will live up to the lofty expectations set for them. Still, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect more from the Panthers here. To lose by 16 points in a game so big in a setting like this is just kind of embarrassing.
You never really know what a team is in the opener. We’re all going off of camp reports and even the full-time media are left with nothing but guesswork and interpreting quotes because practices are closed. But it’s safe to say that we know Pitt needs quite a bit of work.
The defense did an okay job to me and the 30 points scored by Virginia is a bit deceiving. Consider Virginia’s touchdowns. The lone first-half touchdown Virginia scored was on a 19-yard drive after the blocked punt. The two they scored in the second half were also on incredibly short fields after an interception and a turnover on downs. Sure, Pitt could have held them on those drives as they did on others but anytime you give an opposing offense three opportunities to start inside your own 30-yard line, it’s hard to blame the defense there.
Virginia had to go a combined total of 75 yards for their three touchdown drives. Meanwhile, Pitt’s two touchdown drives consisted of 85 and 80 yards. This is taking nothing away from the Cavaliers, who completely outclassed Pitt in this one. But it’s just really hard to compete defensively when you repeatedly make it that easy for an offense.
Speaking of offense, that’s clearly where the bulk of Pitt’s problems lie. Kenny Pickett was 21 for 41 and 185 passing yards with a touchdown but two interceptions. He made some plays but also continued to show some inconsistency in delivering the ball. Head coach Pat Narduzzi made an interesting quote during camp that he didn’t really get the sense that Pickett looked much different to him. When he made that comment, I mentioned it would be great if we were hearing more about how well he was developing, etc. But Pickett very much still looks like the guy with the above average legs and questionable accuracy. Some of that was on him and some of that was on an offensive line that struggled to allow him to feel all that comfortable.
And even when he did get it to guys, they sometimes let him down with really ugly drops. This had every bit the look of a rusty team early in the year still trying to work out kinks. Typically, you get to do that against an FCS opponent or low-level team — not a division contender.
But we knew there were questions in the passing game. What I was surprised to see was the running backs struggle as much as they did.
As I’ve said before, these are guys that are not very experienced. Man, did it show. The two ‘go to’ guys, A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley, combined for a meager 48 yards on 15 carries, averaging a touch over three yards per carry. Things were so bad that the Panthers even inexplicably put true freshman Vincent Davis in for two runs at the end of the game. Yeah, Imma get to that in a bit.
So, okay, lots to digest here.
If you recall, head coach Pat Narduzzi had plenty of questions coming into the game. One of those, however, was not the running game. Earlier this week, he confidently guaranteed that Pitt would be able to run the ball. At another point during camp, he boasted that the team would run the ball well. It’s early but for one game, anyway, that confidence seems to have been misplaced.
The struggle in the running game really shines a rather large spotlight on the transfer of Mychale Salahuddin, who ‘parted ways’ with the team last week and undoubtedly had a good chuckle after Saturday’s disaster. As I said in the comments of that article, I really had some concern with this loss. He seemed like he could have the most upside of any of the backs Pitt currently had and, while I didn’t believe it was the end of the world, it was a bit of a concern.
Could he have helped Pitt tonight? I mean, I doubt it. But here’s the thing. The backs that Pitt has are all unproven. I expected more out of them and was surprised they couldn’t get a little more going. But these guys really struggled tonight and while both had a few nice plays, including a long catch and run from Davis, it’s hard not to think more about the expected Salahuddin transfer. If neither Davis nor Sibley pans out, that could really be a problem. I fully expect that at least one of them will but, well, tonight’s game really makes you wonder more about Salahuddin.
Finally, I’m not entirely sure what Narduzzi was doing by putting true freshman Vincent Davis into the game. Scratch that. I’ve got zero idea what he was doing. Davis came in for the last two plays of the game with it already decided. Now, a player can play four games and still be redshirted under new rules so he can, of course, still be redshirted. But why on earth would you burn one of those four games by throwing in a player for meaningless snaps?
I think people know that I generally like Narduzzi. But every now and then he does something like this that really makes no sense and it’s kind of annoying. Maybe the running game is in such dire straights that Davis will need to play this year. Fine. But what if it’s not? You’ve now burned one of Davis’ games with absolutely no need to do so. This is sort of a footnote here but, man, I’d love to hear the rationale for this.
The season isn’t over. Pitt was 2-3 last year with an ugly loss to North Carolina early on before rebounding to win the Coastal Division. But what we can safely say after one game in is that Pitt has quite a bit of work to do.