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No. 24 Pitt upset by NC State, 30-29

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North Carolina State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

After taking a late lead against NC State, Pitt’s defense couldn’t hold as the Wolfpack marched down the field for a late touchdown of its own, pulling out a shocking 30-29 win. The loss, of course, was the Panthers’ first of the season and will assuredly knock them out of the Top 25.

Other than a defense which really struggled today (oh, I’ll get there), the story of the game if you’re Pitt, is obviously penalties. Plenty of those were justified as NC State routinely caught Pitt offsides and the Panthers’ secondary had some clear pass interference calls. A few others? Eh.

In all, Pitt had 13 penalties for 125 yards. One of the more crucial ones was some sort of trash roughing the passer call on a 3rd down to keep an NC State drive alive. You won’t hear nearly as much about that call as you should. That drive resulted in a touchdown for the Wolfpack. Another play looked like clear offensive pass interference against NC State that wasn’t called on a pushoff went for a touchdown.

Regulars here know I’m not a blame the officials kind of guy. And the stuff you’ll hear from Pitt fans about the ACC being out to get them, of course, makes little sense. But plays like that shaped the course of this game. In a back and forth game, those were game-changers.

Of course, Pitt had plenty of its own issues beyond some officiating. The running game hit rock botton today. Vincent Davis and Israel Abanikanda got the bulk of the work but got nearly nothing of substance accomplished, totaling 42 yards on 19 carries. A.J. Davis may not have been able to do much out there, either, but he’s battling an injury and did not play so the options were even more limited than normal.

It’s worth pointing out that you can live without the big play on the ground. But when you’re getting one and two yards instead of three and four, you put yourself in a really deep hole and force yourself into longer situations on 2nd and third down. Kenny Pickett had 40 rushing yards to prop up the team total but there’s no question that Pitt could not run.

Speaking of Pickett, he was basically a one-man show out there. If we still did a Panther of the Game segment, Pickett is probably your first, second, and third choice. Kicker Alex Kessman gets a strong nod, too, with another great game making all three of his field goal attempts. But Pickett was a beast today — some big runs and he went 22 for 39 for 411 yards. He should have had a better completion percentage than that if not for drops.

Oh yeah, and speaking of drops —

Throw in the dropped two-point conversion by Taysir Mack as another reason contributing to the loss. Pickett scored a touchdown late to put Pitt up by five and the Panthers, of course went for two after the score with little time left on the clock to try to push it to a seven-point lead. Pickett threw a pass right on the money to an open and cutting Mack who just flubbed it.

Another thing chipping away at Pitt was an injury to star freshman Jordan Addison. Addison, of course, had that big 75-yard touchdown catch on the second play of the game and it’s clear he was missed. Yes, Pitt had other guys step up — again, Pickett threw for 411 yards, so guys were producing. D.J. Turner had a monster 186-yard effort, grabbing eight balls. Mack had six grabs for 76 yards. But Mack also had some drops and maybe if that ball goes to Addison, Pickett’s favorite target, at the end instead of Mack.

Eh, we can ‘what if’ ourselves to death here.

Look, head coach Pat Narduzzi talks about the little things constantly. I think most coaches do that. But those things — every single play is important. Mack catches that ball and you get to overtime. The penalties. The failed 4th and goal conversion early in the game. Just way too many of those little things going against Pitt here. And by the way, give an abundance of credit to NC State here, who frankly just stymied the Panthers’ defense most of the day. The Wolfpack played better defensively than I figured they would and they did much more on offense than I expected.

The most surprising part of today’s game was seeing a defense that has been dominant fall apart. Through three games, Pitt had given up 30 total points. They matched that total in this game alone. Heck, I would have been surprised to NC State put 20 on the board, let alone 30.

NC State quarterback was mostly upright and comfortable all game, throwing for 336 yards. I was surprised that the pass rush that had been so effective was largely kept in check today. Pitt’s been maybe the best team in the nation at getting to the quarterback but you’d never know that by today. Today, the pass rush was quite average and that was a huge problem for Pitt. Part of the problem, to me, was those guys were probably a little tentative in not wanting to jump offsides as they constantly did early in the game. But, whatever the reason, the lack of a pass rush was a problem because, for the first time this year, the Panthers’ cornerbacks were exposed.

Now, as I’d written before, that was the weak spot on the defense. Pitt lost Dane Jackson to graduation and the NFL Draft and Damarri Mathis, the team’s other starter last year, suffered a season-ending injury. Thing is, other teams hadn’t been able to take advantage of that because, well, the pass rush has been so unbeatable. If a team doesn’t have time to throw, Pitt’s corners don’t have to cover. Take that away and the corners are suddenly very exposed.

Jason Pinnock is experienced and did a pretty decent job but his counterpart, sophomore Marquis Williams, was picked on all day. I felt badly for Williams, who drew some penalties because I think some of the calls may have been questionable. One of those was the non-call where he was pushed before a touchdown catch. But it’s clear that if teams have time to throw, the Panthers have some issues in pass coverage. Williams is listed at 5’9” and you don’t need me to tell you that he’s going to struggle against bigger receivers. He made some plays but was targeted quite a bit and you can expect that to continue as teams watch this tape.

I don’t know — frustrating loss here. It’s frustrating because, as I said last week, the schedule just gets tougher as the year goes on. This was one of those games that, frankly, you didn’t expect to lose. Pitt couldn’t really afford to lose games like this if they wanted to challenge for an ACC title game appearance. ACC title game hopes may not have ended today but it’s clear that Pitt will need help. A lot of it. They still will essentially control their own destiny since they will play the favorites, Clemson and Notre Dame. But, let’s be clear — winning games like that isn’t something you’ll expect to see after today’s disaster.

Next up, Pitt will head on the road for the first time this year with an away game at Boston College next weekend.

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