Pitt was not expected to do much of anything against Penn State. Most experts went the other way on this one and even the non-experts like us, assumed Penn State would have little trouble with the Panthers.
60 minutes and a heck of an entertaining game later, yeah, not so much.
Sure, Penn State won. And I personally give them credit because they were horrendous in the first half. While it won’t be popular among Pitt fans, Penn State even deserved to do so. They simply made a few more plays when it counted and you would be a fool to take that away from them. But for a team with playoff aspirations, they looked rather unimpressive. That isn’t to take away their credit, of course. They made defensive plays when they needed to, including a dramatic goal line stand (oh yeah, we’ll get to that). But no one with any reason in their head would consider that to be a playoff contender right now.
The game is a perfect, timely example of why Penn State doesn’t want to play it anymore. Even with a significant talent advantage, it can be a very difficult game for them. Pitt only came away with one win in the most recent four-game series but won the initial contest, nearly won today, and kept things close at the half last year before fading in the second half of a messy, miserable game. Penn State won the series and deserved to do as much. But that the Nittany Lions would rather take their chances with extra home cupcakes or schedule less meaningful home/away games with other programs while avoiding this game, well, makes sense — even if they don’t care to admit it publicly.
Pitt fans, of course, are focusing on that goal line stand. And as much as I’d like to start elsewhere, it’s impossible to do that. That, after all, was your ball game.
If you missed it, the Panthers had been playing admirably. Screw that. They were playing their guts out. It was the kind of effort that, if you’re a Pitt fan, makes you want to run through a wall for those kids. And don’t tell me about the mistakes made on the field because they were few and far between given the circumstances. Hardly any penalties, no turnovers. Pitt wasn’t perfect but played an incredibly clean game in facing such odds with a patchwork offensive line, no running game, and the absence of two of their best defensive linemen. In a road game, no less. But back to it — the Panthers found themselves down 17-10 with a 1st and goal from Penn State’s 1.
To me, I’ve got one play call here. QB sneak. Barring a really big push defensively, you’ll get closer if you don’t score. Nothing pretty. I’d run that same stupid play four times in a row and if you can’t get one single yard there then you, quite frankly, don’t deserve to win. Now, I’ve seen worse goal line plays but the reality is that what Pitt tried didn’t work. And beyond that, what will be most talked about is the 4th and 1 where head coach Pat Narduzzi inexplicably tried a field goal attempt.
Pitt, of course, missed the chip shot field goal. But the fact that they did is mostly irrelevant here. With less than four minutes left, the real question is, why would you try to kick a field goal there down seven?
Pat Narduzzi’s thinking here was clear but, well, it was wildly flawed. Let me tell you why, should you find yourself caring to listen.
So Narduzzi’s idea, if you haven’t caught on, is pretty simple. Kick a field goal there to cut it to four, get a stop on defense or maybe even kick an onside kick. Then go down the field all over and score a touchdown to win. Seem crazy? That’s because it is.
To Narduzzi’s credit here, that could have happened. Pitt, after all, did get a stop on Penn State. Then they did get into Penn State territory with a chance to score a touchdown in the final seconds. But that’s just way too much to ask when the offense had scored ten points all day.
The alternative? Go for it on fourth down. You need a touchdown, anyway, and that is absolutely your best chance since you literally cannot get any closer to the goal line. You get a touchdown, then decide if you want to go for two or play for OT. And the thing is, even if you don’t get it, you’ve got Penn State backed up on defense. For Narduzzi’s plan, barring not getting an onside kick, he would have had to get a stop on defense, anyway. Wouldn’t you rather try to stop Penn State from their own 1 than let them start with much more room to operate?
Narduzzi has made a lot of baffling calls. Maybe it’s the heat of the moment. I can appreciate that, certainly. We saw that play out in the North Carolina-Wake Forest game last night where a running back needed to get out of bounds at the end of the game. He did get a foot out with a second left but had fooled around too much in doing so and the refs missed it. He was trying to make a play instead of doing the right thing. Things happen in these sorts of games with all kinds of pressure and Narduzzi, like any coach, is capable of making a mistake
But that is a call that Narduzzi cannot afford to make. Even beyond that, it’s just an incredibly routine call. Give that call to 100 coaches and virtually everyone would go in the other direction. It didn’t make sense on any level, on any planet, in any universe, given Pitt’s struggle to score points today.
Despite all of it, give Pitt a lot of credit here. As we saw in the second half of the game last year, things could get out of hand in a hurry if you don’t stay focused. But the Panthers’ defense really hung in there in the second half. No, the offense wasn’t very good in that half. But that’s more a product of the offense struggling as a whole. In other words, it’s not as if the offense dominated in the first half, either. Pitt played every bit of every minute in this one and you tip your hat to those kids.
Pitt got beyond adequate play from any number of sources but it was the defense that allowed them to keep it close. Pitt’s defense stymied Penn State’s offense on any number of occasions, roughing up prized quarterback Sean Clifford quite a bit on his way to a rough day. That he was so thoroughly outplayed by Kenny Pickett was not something anyone could have predicted. That’s no offense to Pickett but Clifford would have been the easy pick, by anyone, in any kind of a tale of the tape. But Pickett finished with 35/51 passing for 372 yards while Clifford completed fewer than 50% of his passes for only 222. Just as important, Pickett stepped into a hostile environment, didn’t have any interceptions, and just made really smart decisions, throwing the ball away when necessary, not throwing into traffic, and just playing smart football.
Pickett’s an enigma to me. He has these breakout games and then will be back to throwing for a buck fifty and being more of a game manager the next. But you want to believe that this is finally the turning point for him. He grew up today, it seemed, and I give him all of the credit in the world for staring down those odds like a gangster. I really hope Pitt will give him the reins a bit more to at least see if he can do this on a consistent basis. And besides, the abysmal running game isn’t helping.
About that running game, it was rough, with Pitt accumulating only 24 yards all day. Without that, it just makes it very hard to win games. Pickett has been good but even great quarterbacks have their hands tied a bit if they don’t have a running game. Still, there’s a role for A.J. Davis in this offense. He didn’t have much success on the ground but has shown that he can take short passes and reel off yardage. Pitt was having some success doing that and I wish they would have gone to those kinds of plays a bit more today. That, not the runs up the gut, is what Pitt really should be trying to do more often.
If you’re a Pitt junkie, you might remember that there was a preseason article on ESPN about Pitt turning into a passing team as opposed to a running one. It seemed downright silly at the time and still sounds hard to believe just because of what the Panthers have traditionally tried to do. But Pitt right now is and should be a pass-first team with the run mixed in — not the other way around. And with Pickett throwing 51 times in an abundantly close game today, I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s what it is.
There were gaffes beyond Narduzzi’s of course. A few dropped balls, questionable play calls, etc. One in particular is something that a commenter mentioned in the game thread in that Pitt had two consecutive plays before Penn State’s first touchdown with only ten defenders on the field(!). I’m not sure how that happens when you’ve got coordinators and coaches but, it is what it is. Head scratcher plain and simple, and someone needs to answer for that kind of dumb mistake in a crucial position.
Despite that, I have a very hard time beating Pitt up over this one. You want to play piñata with Narduzzi? I mean, sure. He flubbed that call and has flubbed others, and he absolutely made a horrible decision there. If you want your ten pounds of flesh there, have at it. Can’t even blame you. But what shouldn’t be lost here is that, defensively, Pitt proved today that they should again contend in the Coastal. That might or might not mean anything to you. But that’s where the goal is when you’re 1-2. Aspirations of something beyond that are predictably out of reach. This team was mostly ready to play today and that defense was flat out incredible. There’s good reason to be excited about what that unit is building.
This one hurts and I’m not going to try to suggest it does not. But Pitt also was not supposed to win, nor were they even supposed to make it all that close. The Panthers played a heck of a game today and again proved why Penn State is going to avoid this game like the plague in the future.
Hail to Pitt.