PITTSBURGH — Up by 27 at halftime, it looked like Pitt would cruise to an easy victory over Marshall at Heinz Field Saturday night.
But a strong third quarter by the Thundering Herd offense and an opportunistic special teams play cracked the door open and the Herd rumbled through it, closing to within a single score.
But instead of folding on defense or being unable to get the job done offensively, as they had the last three weeks, Pitt stepped up on both sides of the ball to finish with a positive result in a 43-27 victory.
The final margin doesn’t begin to describe how close the game was, as a 54-yard Jester Weah touchdown catch and Avonte’s Maddox game-sealing pick-six padded the margin in the final 1:04.
But the fact that the Panthers were able to finish strong, particularly on offense, is a step forward in a department that had been lacking.
“We made plays when we needed to at the end,” said head coach Pat Narduzzi. “The last drive of our offense with four minutes and change to go, that’s our four minute drill that we’ve talked about our last couple of weeks that we have not been able to get that first down. That big 3rd and 7 catch by Scott Orndoff was big-time. They actually gave us a different coverage that we didn’t expect. Obviously, Jester’s big catch on [3rd and 3] was a tremendous football catch and a big play.”
The decision to throw at that point was one that Narduzzi agreed was gutsy. Pitt only needed three yards for a first down to seal the victory. Instead, it was a pass to Weah, who had impressed all day, and finished with 176 yards on seven catches.
“It was Coach Canada’s call and I agreed,” Narduzzi said. “He said, ‘Do you want to go for the touchdown or run it up in there and see what happens?’ I said, ‘I want a first down and a touchdown.’ It was a heck of a call by Coach Canada and the offensive staff. That time, we did get the coverage we wanted. It was execution.”
“I loved it when they called the play,” Weah said. “I knew that I had the ability to make the play, I just had to go out there and do it.”
Weah, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, is a big, strong receiver, and he has excellent speed to go along with it. The big hurdle for him has always been his hands. But on Saturday, he made catches in traffic, fought for contested balls and found a way underneath the lobs unlike he has at any point in his career.
“[We’ve been] talking about the absence of [graduated wide receiver Tyler Boyd] and [the need for] a playmaker, Narduzzi said. “He’s not only making the deep catch, he’s making the short slants and the three step-stuff that great receivers do. We had all the faith. … We have a lot of confidence in him.”
The threat of the downfield pass can have a huge effect on the rest of the offense, and Weah thinks they can do even more in downfield passing.
“I believe so, not just on me, but the other receivers we have,” Weah said. “I think it will open up the passing game, for not only me but also for the other receivers as well.”
NO WHITEHEAD, NO ANSWERS
Pitt played without starting strong safety Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead was a full participant in practice during the week and even warmed up with the other specialists during kick and punt return drills, but did not play in the game.
“It’s nice to get a ‘w’ when one of your best players isn’t on the field,” Narduzzi said. “I’m not going to talk about personnel, injuries and all that. We’ll just kind of leave it at that. I expect him to hopefully be ready to go this week. We’ll play that by ear.”
When pressed further, Narduzzi wouldn’t reveal whether Whitehead was dealing with an illness, injury or something else.
“I’m not going to tell you anything, I guess,” he said. “You know I don’t talk about that.”
Narduzzi was complimentary of senior Reggie Mitchell, who switched from the free safety position to the strong safety position and lead the team with nine tackles.
“Reggie did a heck of a job stepping up like we expect him to all the time,” Narduzzi said. “He played a really good game.”
Narduzzi said that missing Whitehead had “no effect at all” in any potential changes he would have made to his defensive secondary coming into the week. He had suggested that he may do so after the North Carolina loss.
Pitt racked up 252 yards on the ground, but the lion’s share came from a somewhat unexpected source: freshman running back Chawntez Moss.
Moss out-touched James Conner 12 to 11 and out-gained him, 97 to 34, as the Panthers’ most-effective rushing weapon.
“He’s got a little bit of a different gear you see out there,” Narduzzi said. “Chawntez got a little bit of juice in there.”
Narduzzi added that Moss hasn’t necessarily passed Conner on the depth chart — he was just playing the hot hand.
“It’s a feel thing,” Narduzzi said. “You can watch how Chawntez hits it up in there. He’s just got a little bit of a different running style. You saw it last week when he got in. It was effective.”
The team continues to monitor the workload of Conner, who spent all spring going through chemotherapy.
“It would be different if we had James and nobody else, but you’ve heard us talk about the stable we’ve got back there,” he said. “Qadree Ollison is getting a lot of snaps in there, as well. we’re going to keep an eye on him. We’ve got to keep him healthy.”
That pack mentality has resonated with the backs, as well.
“We just have a lot of great backs,” Moss said. “It’s about knowing that you don’t have to be tired in a game or overexert yourself. You can come out of the game and there is no drop off. Knowing that is knowing that our offensive can be more explosive.”
DEEP TROUBLE AGAIN
Pitt has been dealing with secondary issues all season, and they cropped up again, as free safety Terrish Webb was beaten twice over the top. One resulted in an 83-yard touchdown by Michael Clark and the other went for a pass interference penalty.
“We had practiced a different coverage on that second down play,” he said. “Seven is a good player. It was just a switch route, almost a slant-and-go. During the week, we played a little bit different coverage to it. Our backers really double-teamed him with the corner, but the corner switched it off with the safety. T-Webb got caught on the vertical route and didn’t play it well.”