The Pitt football team lost its third straight game to Miami on Saturday, 31-19. Unlike the last two weeks, the Panthers weren’t expected to win. But while the loss was disappointing, it was honestly a game that was probably closer than expected.
Losing by 12 to the No. 13 team in the country on the road is hardly embarrassing. But given how the Panthers lost the last two weeks, it’s just another thing that will add to the frustration.
The story here, of course, is that Pitt (3-3) was without starting quarterback Kenny Pickett against the Hurricanes (4-1). Pickett was banged up in last week’s loss to Boston College and not seeing him out there was hardly surprising. Frankly, if you told me that Pitt would be without Pickett today, I could have seen the team losing by 20 or more. I had that little faith in what the Panthers had behind him. And as we saw last week when Pickett was clearly hurt and the coaches did not insert a backup, we know their faith in the substitutions wasn’t exactly high, either.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi hates showing his hand when it comes to injuries. But I think the optimism he expressed this week about Pickett was more gamesmanship and less truth (That, by the way, if true, doesn’t bother me). The reality is that Pickett was hobbling horribly at the end of that game and him actually playing is what would have been the surprise. He looked quite injured and now the question is if he’ll be out for more than one week. That he didn’t even make the trip as was mentioned on the broadcast tells you this was not a game time decision. He was hurt and, if I had to guess, I’d say the team knew they were going to be without him early in the week. Just my own personal take-it-or-leave-it opinion.
Despite that, Pitt seemingly had not settled on a backup quarterback. Halfway into the season, that’s sort of ridiculous. But the Panthers played both Joey Yellen and Davis Beville early before settling on Yellen. And, frankly, I don’t know what more you could have expected from him. Given the circumstances of barely playing any college football and facing a strong defense, he played about as well as I think anyone could have expected.
I don’t know why the Yellen decision was so difficult. Maybe it was about Beville looking better than expected in practice. But as a transfer, Yellen clearly didn’t come here to be the No. 3 quarterback. He came expecting he’d start after Pickett was gone. And while I’m not saying he should, what I’m saying is that, with actual game experience against a quality opponent (he played USC in a close loss last year with Arizona State) that he was probably the best choice for a game like this against an aggressive defense as opposed to throwing Beville to the wolves. I have no idea what the breakdown in reps was this week but Yellen probably deserved the lion share of them with the first team. The flip-flopping in the beginning of the game, playing both guys, made little sense to me. It made even less sense seeing Yellen be a mostly competent player.
Yellen was hardly perfect and made some mistakes out there. But even beyond his final stat line (22-46 for 277 yards and a touchdown), he looked fairly poised out there. It is easy to see him as a starting quarterback and he’ll only get better as his career progresses. I was pretty happy with his play. Remember, this is a kid basically playing his second career game. If Pickett is out for any length of time, it’s clear to me that you stick with him unless he plays so badly that you have no choice. Yellen needs reps — and time. I give him both at this point for as long as Pickett is out.
That he did so well without a running game (the trio of Todd Sibley, A.J. Davis, and Vincent Davis provided only 44 total yards on 20 carries) is even more remarkable to me. He’s definitely got work to do but, for a backup, he was more than serviceable. Pickett is noticeably better but Yellen looked fine to me for a reserve and, again, he’ll get better and learn to throw some of those balls away instead of taking sacks.
Jordan Addison was again the highlight of the offense. The freshman wide receiver had another great game with eight catches for 147 yards. Both of those are career highs and he just keeps getting better and better. That he has so quickly and so easily become the best receiver on the team so soon is astonishing. That doesn’t tie into anything here, really, but needed to be said. He played exceedingly well today.
Unfortunately, for the third straight week, Pitt just didn’t have enough at both ends. Neither unit was terrible but neither performed well, necessarily. The problem area on offense was clearly the team settling for four Alex Kessman field goals (and congrats to Kessman, by the way, for apparently setting the Pitt field goal record for most all time). Obviously, you convert some of those for touchdowns and you maybe have a different game. But I’d also say that the score could have been even worse.
Pitt got interceptions from Marquis Williams and Paris Ford to set themselves up with very short fields, accounting for ten points. The Panthers defense was far from lights out today but those two turnovers really made the game closer. Without those and you get something closer to the 20-point loss I mentioned earlier. I know the talk from fans will be that the Panthers should have been closer, wanting to talk about the field goals. But honestly, it could have been worse, too.
That said, Narduzzi has repeatedly emphasized the team needing to get field goals instead of touchdowns and, well, that was a problem again today. The team’s red zone issues are glaring and Pitt has to find a way to score touchdowns. It sounds so basic but I don’t know how else to say it. All teams talk about it but Pitt’s conversion rate, whatever it is after this game, surely is not good enough.
And while I’d have to confirm this to make sure, after the game it was mentioned that Pitt had five red zone opportunities with only the one touchdown from the 1-yard line after the Williams interception. Again, the only touchdown they scored all day was a result of being given the ball on the 1-yard line. You’re just not going to win many games like that. It’s great that Kessman delivered to keep things close but you can’t win that way.
Oh yeah, and sprinkle in the penalties (ten for 89 yards compared to only five for 55 yards for Miami) and some really bad drops by receivers, and you’ve just got a really sloppy game.
I just want to say a bit about that. Those kinds of things you expect to see early in the year. But as I said, we’re halfway into the season now. That Pitt continues to rack up senseless pre-snap penalties and have receivers dropping wide open balls — I don’t get it. You’ve got to change what you’re doing and this stuff is happening week after week. You’re going to get called for holding. Or pass interference. Or occasionally even a personal foul. Those kinds of things happen in the flow of a physical game and are unavoidable. But to have these sorts of penalties for illegal shifts, or substitutions, or linemen not settled before play even begins — I just don’t know why that happens with such regularity.
Maybe if you’ve got some sort of complex offense that scores a ton of points and plays a fast tempo but the Panthers are not scoring in bunches. That makes those sorts of penalties not only more frustrating but deals a modest offense an even more difficult hand as they are constantly trying to make up yardage.
I have no idea to fix it and neither do the coaches because they would have by now. At some point it’s about having disciplined players and I have no doubt that coaches are saying, ‘Don’t do that.’ To expect that they are not is ludicrous. So it rests on the players and the players these coaches have recruited simply are not doing a good enough job. Coaches can only beat that stuff into them so much and I have a hard time believing that an experienced staff is not hammering that point home.
If you flat out lose to a better team with more skilled players, that’s one thing. When you can’t do the fundamentals ... week after week, getting no better at them — that’s just inexcusable. Pitt led the nation in drops last year and, as was mentioned in the broadcast, was up there again this year. I just don’t know how the Panthers get past this year without at least some coaching changes, even if coaches are doing an adequate job. Narduzzi’s job, barring a total collapse, is probably safe. But this kind of stuff can’t keep happening, week after week without consequence, if not only for the sake of change and merely trying something different.
Overall, this is just turning in a very difficult year to swallow. Your best defender opts out of the season before it begins. One of your starting corners goes out for the year. A handful of points shy of possibly being 5-0 coming into this one. Then you lose your starting quarterback. I don’t know. Frustrating year all around, and it’s about to get tougher with some difficult games still remaining. Some years, like the year Pitt went to the ACC title game, things come together. Other years, things work against you. That’s what this is.
Here’s the deal — this is a lost year in terms of doing anything meaningful. Pitt is out of contention in the ACC race and a once promising year is basically gone at this point. Now, it’s about avoiding a disastrous season. Pitt cannot only easily finish under .500 but probably needs to pull off at least one upset to avoid that. Something like 5-6 or 6-5 is quite attainable but it’s also possible that the team finishes even worse than that — and that’s what you want to avoid.
Teams like Pitt can afford to have years like that - to sort of hover around .500. They are not good enough to win eight games every year and some years will be worse than others. It’s not ideal but it is what it is. What you don’t want, even in years like this one where there are fewer games, is to get down into that three or four-win category. That’s the sort of thing that gets tough to sell to recruits and, just as importantly, to fans. You hang around .500 and you can make the case that eight or even nine wins isn’t that far off. When you finish a year with three or four wins, you’re just talking about a tough sell to anyone that isn’t a die-hard fan.
That isn’t fair. Pitt, for example, has two losses by a single point and is arguably a better team than their 3-3 record indicates. But records are records. You can, for example, make the case that Pitt was a weak 8-5 team last year with three straight wins of three points or less, an OT win, and a bowl win against a MAC opponent of only four points. Last year, Pitt won the close games. This year, they are losing them. It just goes to show you that the difference between a five-win team and an eight-win team isn’t always that much.
But the reality is that, at 3-3 in this point of the year, there is no doubt that the Panthers have not met expectations, and that’s what fans care about — not necessarily how you got there.