After breaking down the film from Pitt’s last-second loss to North Carolina, I’ve come up with some reasons the Panthers lost — and a big red herring. Here’s eight things that cost the Panthers and one that didn’t.
When you lost by one point on the last play of the game, the end of the game gets magnified. But Alex Officer’s snap on 2nd and 8 from the North Carolina 14 late in the first quarter was so far over Nate Peterman’s head that the Panthers lost 28 yard and Pitt had to scramble to get back into field goal position instead of two shots to get a 1st and goal.
Given the way Pitt ran the ball all day (5.1 yards per carry), I have no doubt that this play cost the Panthers four points.
For most of the day, Pitt played much softer coverage than the bump-and-run man-to-man the Panthers got torched by against Oklahoma State. North Carolina’s unsurprising adjustment was to throw more underneath routes. But a second-quarter missed tackle epidemic cost the Panthers a boatload of yards. Seun Idowu, Ryan Lewis and Terrish Webb all whiffed on Ryan Switzer’s 58 yard catch and run on North Carolina’s first scoring drive.
Idowu and Webb both missed Switzer again on a 12-yard completion that started the Tar Heels’ second touchdown drive. Idowu also missed a tackle on Thomas Jackson on a 3rd and 7 that would have stopped the play short of the sticks. Instead, Jackson gained a first down and North Carolina scored four plays later.
This is the big one. I counted six missed assignments that went for big plays against the Panthers secondary. The biggest misses seemed to come in between the linebacker and the safety on North Carolina’s slot receiver. Here’s a perfect example on North Carolina’s second touchdown, as Idowu and Webb can’t stay with Switzer:
As a converted safety, Idowu should be able to do a better job of covering the short zone there. If he can’t, Pitt needed to go to their “Delta” package and get Dennis Briggs in there or come up with something on the fly to add a third cornerback or second free safety.
There were other missed assignments that came in between Lewis and Webb, too, as Pitt tried to provide more deep help over the top.
It’s tough to be too critical of Quadree Henderson, who had 249 all-purpose yards and was named to the Paul Hornung Award Honor Roll for the second time in four weeks. But his second-quarter fumble was a huge swing in the play of the game. If Henderson hangs on to the football, Pitt is looking at a likely field goal drive, if not more. Instead, North Carolina marched down the field and got three points before the end of the half.
GETTING BEAT ONE-ON-ONE
It wasn’t to the same epidemic proportions that occurred during the Week 3 loss to Oklahoma State, but Pitt still got beat one-on-one several times for big plays against North Carolina, including both of the late-fourth quarter touchdowns.
Lewis was the victim of at least three such plays, and on the final score, was flagged for defensive pass interference, but still allowed Bug Howard to come down with the catch — a cardinal sin.
Neither Dane Jackson or Phillipie Motley looked great in limited action against Oklahoma State and Damar Hamlin is still injured, so I’m not sure there’s an obvious personnel move to be made, but if there is one, Lewis’ seat is probably hottest.
It’s really tough to be too tough on Peterman, as his 14 for 18 stat line for 140 yards stat line suggests that he probably did enough for his team to win the game.
But three of the four misses were all poorly thrown balls by Peterman, they all came on third down and they all caused Pitt to have to punt the ball away when they really needed to be killing the clock.
Qadree Ollison was split out wide on the first pass and was essentially left uncovered, Peterman just missed him. A third-down miss to Tre Tipton was similarly poorly placed, as was one that sailed way over the head of tight end Scott Orndoff.
The last one was a play that was roundly criticized as a poor call, but after some review, was poorly executed.
On Pitt’s final offensive play of the game, Peterman threw a screen pass to James Conner. Conner was stuffed for no gain on the play, but had nearly no chance to do anything with a defender right in his face from the moment he caught the ball.
The call, however, wasn’t bad, as Pitt got the matchup they were looking for. It was the execution of the pass that was lacking. Notice first that there is little-to-no pressure on Peterman as he makes the pass. Then see that the ball is thrown behind Conner and forces him to take his route wider than he wants to, outside the block of Brian O’Neill and right into the path of the defender:
If Peterman had lead Conner upfield, he would have had had a head of steam and a one-on-one open-field matchup with 190-pound defensive back Thomas Brown (No. 20). Peterman had time and this is a route the Panthers practice constantly. He just didn’t make a good throw.
Malik Henderson will likely find himself in Pat Narduzzi’s doghouse this week for his blatant block-in-the-back penalty on a punt return with nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter that cost the Panthers 10 yards of field position.
With the other defensive backs not having a great September, Henderson could have positioned himself for more playing time. Instead, it appears he’s been passed by Dane Jackson on the depth chart and his special teams mistake won’t help his cause, either.
POORLY DESIGNED DEFENSE
On North Carolina’s penultimate drive, the Panthers had the Tar Heels with a 3rd and 15 just inside Pitt territory. Down two scores with under 7 minutes to play, it was an obvious four-down situation for North Carolina.
But the Panthers played a very soft zone, which Switzer predictably found a soft spot in the zone and gained 12 yards to set up 4th and short, which the Tar Heels converted. Nobody makes a bad play here, this is the way the coverage was designed:
Many of the complains I saw on Twitter immediately after the game were that the Panthers played it too conservatively with the game on the line on offense.
First of all, when your offense scores 36 points, that’s usually good enough to win a football game. Second of all, I don’t think Matt Canada was being conservative as much as he was doing what Pitt does best.
Up until the last two drives, Pitt had called running plays 72 percent of the time compared to 28 percent passes on the day. The last two drives were 67 percent run, 33 percent pass. If anything, Pitt threw the ball more often down the stretch.
Even on third down, throughout the game — when Pitt’s offense largely had its way with North Carolina’s defense — the Panthers run/pass was right about 50-50.
Pitt’s offensive strength by a long shot is running the football, and attempting to finish the job with the running game was correct call. Peterman didn’t make some third-down throws when he needed to, but when you’re averaging over five yards per carry as a team and are trying to kill the clock, abandoning the run would have been insanity.