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Pitt stunned by Western Michigan, 44-41

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For years, Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi had mostly eluded the types of early-season, head-scratching losses that his predecessor Paul Chryst had suffered. But on Saturday, Narduzzi’s heavily-favored Panthers were beaten at home by Western Michigan, 44-41 in what can only be viewed as a shocker.

Look, the calls for Narduzzi’s head are going to be at an all-time high today. But while I am willing to let the season play out — for maybe the first time, my voice feels like it is among that group.

I have never been a ‘Fire the head coach’ kind of guy. And in the case of Narduzzi, who has done a lot of things right at Pitt, it’s even harder for me to get to that demand. But this was to be Narduzzi’s year, so to speak. The program lost an admittedly large amount of talent on defense from last year but they returned much of the really critical pieces, including starting quarterback Kenny Pickett, who was sort of the lynchpin for making this whole year work. The schedule was manageable and for the first time in a while, ten wins didn’t seem like it was exactly crazy talk, despite the talent lost on defense. I’ll get to that in a bit.

There’s no better word for it. To lose this game, at this time, at home, no less, is flat out inexcusable.

The game was sloppy. And if you’re Pitt, the eight penalties on the day were surpassed only by three turnovers. Early on last week, Pitt looked overwhelmed by Tennessee before recovering for the win. Today, they looked clumsy, ill-prepared, and at times, even aloof. Beyond an occasional outburst from guys like Habakkuk Baldonado, there just didn’t seem to be much ‘buzz’ or emotion from the defense. This looked like a team sleepwalking until they got to Georgia Tech in a few weeks.

Despite the giveaways, Pitt’s offense, for the third straight game, mostly did its job. 41 points against a weaker opponent should be plenty, despite three turnovers. And make no mistake, Western Michigan was the better team today but they are, effectively, a weaker team. This is not some return of an undefeated UCF team or something. Western Michigan was manhandled by Michigan 47-14 earlier this year. Let’s be clear — this is a team Pitt should defeat ten out of ten times.

So, offense — yeah, those guys were pretty good. Pickett was 23-31 for 382 yards and six touchdown passes. Receiver Jordan Addison had 124 of those yards, six catches, and three of the touchdowns. Jared Wayne added 100 yards receiving on five catches, and two of tight end Jared Krull’s catches were scores. The offense doesn’t feel electric, per se. But they’ve scored more than 40 points every time out and Pickett has been fantastic. Beyond that, the receivers have been incredible as well, hauling in numerous tough catches this year already. People want to make this into the Pickett show a bit but he has some very talented receivers.

On the ground, things were more problematic. Pitt again had no semblance of a running game and, in fact, they had only 13 attempts if you take Pickett’s scrambling out of the mix. Vincent Davis had 38 yards on 11 rushes — and that was the bulk of what the backs achieved.

Pitt seemed content to avoid running the ball today. Sure, some of that was due to game situation (Pitt’s only lead of the game, after all, was at 7-0). Still, don’t let that idea drive the bus too much. The reality is that Pitt cannot run the ball consistently and they were never so far out of the game that logic dictated they could fight only by airing it out. No, they aired it out because that is the only option when you’re picking up two yards at a time on the ground.

I was surprised to see Narduzzi sort of push back on that narrative that Pitt cannot run in the press conference this week because Pitt couldn’t run the ball last week, either. But if there was any doubt about it coming into today, there isn’t anymore. The Panthers cannot run the ball right now and the fact that this is looking like the third straight season of that is kind of inexcusable. As Pickett has improved over the years after Pitt lost the tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, Pitt’s ability to run has regressed. Badly.

Pitt’s offense still persevered without a running game so that was more of an annoyance than it was an actual hindrance to winning the game. But the defense? Well, yeah, let’s talk about that defense.

The Panthers have sort of been guided by this philosophy of ‘next man up.’ In a nutshell, that really speaks to the unit still being strong, despite the losses of players from last year’s defense — players like Paris Ford, Damar Hamlin, Patrick Jones, and Rashad Weaver. And part of the fans’ acceptance of that ‘next man up’ creed over the years has been because, traditionally, Pitt has rebounded well from the losses of stars — at many positions.

That’s not terribly unique to Pitt as other schools do obviously are forced to do that as well. But in terms of Pitt’s defense this year, it really seemed applicable. We are constantly told that many of the team’s backups are inches away from being legitimate starters. And that idea was an easy sell when fans saw how the defensive line terrorized opponents last year, despite the loss of Jaylen Twyman, who was supposedly the best of the bunch. So then, the hope was that this year, the defense would be just as good, despite the losses of high-quality players. But it hasn’t been quite as much of a plug-and-play as expected.

The defense looked great in the opener against UMass. But problems surfaced against Tennessee last week. Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton has a rocket for an arm but was woefully inaccurate. Pitt then allowed backup quarterback Hendon Hooker to come into the game and nearly win it.

If you watched that game, you saw Milton miss receiver after receiver and the Pitt secondary was beaten repeatedly. That happened again today, too. Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby threw for 336 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. On one occasion, junior safety Erick Hallett badly held a receiver to prevent him from getting away and said receiver still managed to get five yards clear of him. Western Michigan was really playing pitch and catch out there today and Pitt’s defense didn’t do nearly enough. Even on the ground where that unit typically thrives, Western Michigan had too much success. Their two primary backs, Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson, rushed for 162 yards and three touchdowns.

Just how bad was the Pitt defense? The Panthers’ offense had a good day but Western Michigan actually outgained Pitt, 516 to 490, and had more first downs (27-25). And critically, when the Panthers needed a stop late in the fourth quarter to get the ball back, they couldn’t get it with Western Michigan converting two critical first downs. We can talk all we want about overlooking Western Michigan, etc. But the reality is that, with the game on the line and Pitt needing a defensive stop, they simply weren’t able to get it. That’s eye-opening, frankly. And given that Narduzzi is defensive-minded, seeing that unit struggle the way it did today is even more frustrating.

I like Pat. I’ve always been abundantly clear about that, even in the face of fans wanting him fired long before today. I’ve stuck up for Pat time and again. And if Pitt keeps him, I have no doubt that he’ll continue to lead this team to seven-win and eight-win seasons. He’ll pull off the occasional upset and he’ll lose the occasional game he shouldn’t. Let’s not all of a sudden pretend as if the football program is mired in some ‘worst ever’ state and that they don’t belong in the FBS. Pitt is in a very comfortable string of bowl game appearances and things could certainly be worse.

But the reality is, if Pitt is to get beyond this label of mediocrity — if they’re to get the 10-win seasons we want to see, games like today prove that is seemingly impossible under Narduzzi. There is nothing that proves Narduzzi is the guy to get Pitt to that next level — certainly not with any degree of consistency, anyway.

And what Pitt football is doing is not good enough for the school’s other sports. Athletic director Heather Lyke has made that abundantly clear by forcing out coaches in other sports that long went disregarded before her and predecessor Scott Barnes arrived. Lyke has placed an emphasis on winning at every level and the sort of middle-of-the-pack mentality is not where she wants a program as prominent as the football program. No athletic director does because, for most schools, it’s the cash cow.

So what’s Narduzzi’s saving grace? If you’re Heather Lyke, why do you not fire Narduzzi by Monday?

Because there’s a lot of season left. And frankly, this team has bounced back before. After losing back-to-back games against North Carolina and Oklahoma State to start the season in 2016, they rallied to finish 8-4. After the embarrassing 51-6 loss to Penn State in 2018, they rebounded to reach the ACC championship game. If there’s one ‘positive’ about today, it’s that it wasn’t a conference game. In my mind, you’ve absolutely got to give Narduzzi the rest of the season. He’s certainly earned at least that much.

But I’ll go on the record here as saying it — if Pitt doesn’t win nine regular season games this year, it’s time for Pat to go. In my mind, anyway. If brighter days were ahead, that would be one thing. But Pitt will lose Pickett after this season and don’t have a blue chip quarterback on the horizon. There is nothing at all to suggest that next year will be better or have a better chance to win. If the program is going to show progress, it’s going to come this year, not next.

The Panthers have continued to recruit reasonably well on defense but even on the recruiting trail overall, the team has not made great strides under Narduzzi, who only just achieved his first ever Rivals Top 25 class this year. A top ten class on the horizon would be enough to improve Narduzzi’s job security. But that isn’t coming, either.

Look, if Pitt goes 7-5 or even 8-4 this year, I just don’t know what the incentive for keeping Narduzzi is, unless you’re just sort of convinced as an athletic director that’s where the ceiling is. And, frankly, it’s not. Other programs with less history and less resources have muscled their way to better seasons. The reality is that many coaches could achieve that sort of success here — especially if they were given seven years to do it. If nothing else, Pitt should be achieving a 10-win season, here and there, even if only by accident.

Narduzzi has been very good for Pitt. You will never hear me say otherwise. The program has been a clean one, they’ve had some big wins, and they’ve sent a lot of guys to the pros. He brought stability to a program that sorely needed it. But it’s also quite possible that he’s reached his limit. And if he’s reached his limit and that limit is well short of contending for ACC titles, you have to start asking, why do you keep him?

I have no idea what Pitt will do with the job this year. And no, if I’m Lyke, I’m not sort of foolishly marching into the locker room after today’s game and demanding Narduzzi’s resignation. But the warm seat he was probably on is now unmistakably hot.

At least it should be.

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