If Pitt’s loss to North Carolina was a gut punch for their ACC title hopes, Thursday night was the knockout blow.
Pitt had many paths to a Coastal Division title, but almost all of them included a win over Virginia Tech. Instead, under the lights at Heinz Field and on national television, the Panthers were unable to hold off the Hokies and lost, 39-36.
In a three-point game, Pitt left many potential scapegoats for the loss, including a pair of uncharacteristic turnovers and nine penalties, a slow start offensively and a 3rd down stop that came up just an inch or two short.
But again the biggest issue for the Panthers was the pass defense, and this time it was under attack from multiple angles. Junior starter Avonte Maddox missed his second consecutive game and Phillipie Motley — who had filled in pretty well at Virginia — was lost for the game to a left leg injury in the first half.
Ryan Lewis and redshirt freshman Dane Jackson attempted to soldier on, but it didn’t seem to matter who was at corner, Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans was completing passes at will. Evans finished with 406 yards and two touchdowns, and three Hokies wideouts went into triple digits.
While the pass defense has been a consistent issue for the team this season, but for the most part, they’ve had issues getting the defensive backs to the right spots on the field to make the plays, either through communication errors or missed assignments.
Thursday, Pitt’s corners were tucked on the hip of their opponents for most of the night, but were very infrequently able to do anything positive from that position.
“It was a fade fest out there. Our corners were in position to make plays. Gotta make one,” Narduzzi said. “I thought the coverage was good. I thought there were some things that were one-sided out there that really irked me. We had guys in position to make plays. We didn’t make them.”
Narduzzi went on to say that he thought the Hokies were guilty of pushing off frequently and that he didn’t see and infraction on the offsides penalty that negated a first-half interception. But those were beside his main point, which was that for the most part, his guys were in the right place. They just couldn’t get the job done.
“That’s our job as coaches, offensively and defensively is to get them in position to make plays,” he said.
Narduzzi rejected the notion — several times — that a different scheme or help for his corners would have made a difference.
“There’s not a whole lot of different ways to do it, guys,” he said. “We have 11 guys out there. If you’re going to be gap sounds in the run game, there’s not a whole lot you can do. … They did have help at times. We played from different things at times. But again, they’re a team that likes to run the football. There’s not a whole lot you can do or you’re going to get the ball run down your throat. … You have to make a play, that’s what you’ve gotta do.”
HAMLIN MAKES DEBUT
On the pass defense front, Narduzzi fired his last remaining bullet by pulling the redshirt off Damar Hamlin. Hamlin came into the game in the second half and immediately gave up a 31-yard pass play. Hamlin was also at the point of the attack on the final, pivotal play and wasn’t able to make the tackle. Narduzzi said that he only used Hamlin because of the injuries to Maddox and Motley.
“Damar’s been our fourth corner the last two weeks. He’s gotten better every day,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t feel bad putting him out there. We thought about putting Maddox out there but I didn’t want to do that to him. I don’t think he’s 100 percent yet. I don’t think that’s fair to throw him out there like that. Damar was ready to go and he wanted to go. That’s the thing I love about him is that he’s like, ‘Coach, I want to go.’ Good for him. We’ll continue to get him more reps. He’s going to play. With our corner situation right now, we need him out there.”
Hamlin was excited to get the opportunity, and thinks that after getting his foot in the door, he’ll be able to show more in the coming weeks.
“I wanted to play and Coach presented me with an opportunity. I’m forever grateful for that,” he said. “I finally got my feet a little bit wet, so yeah, I feel like I have a building block. … I feel like I’ll be a lot better know that I know where I’m rusty and what I need to work on. I really can’t wait to play again.”
If Hamlin plays better going forward, that should take some of the heat off Narduzzi for burning the redshirt year, but with Miami and Clemson on the schedule the next two weeks, that’s a big ask of a young player.
CONNER’S BIG DAY
If there was a silver lining in Pitt’s loss, it was the inspired play of James Conner, who had his best game since his return from Hodkin lymphoma.
“He was a beast. They did a good job of taking some of our sweeps away, but they couldn’t take him away,” Narduzzi said. “I wish we could have given it to him 15 more times.”
But Conner was critical of his own performance. He was able to break into the third layer of the Virginia Tech defense several times, but wished he had been able to take one to the house.
“I have to do a lot better,” I got to get faster. I have to make people miss in open space.”
Motley (left leg) and wide receiver Aaron Mathews (left leg) both left the game in the first half and did not return.
Wide receiver Dontez Ford (collarbone), linebacker Mike Caprara (lower-body), defensive end Ejuan Price (back) and free safety Terrish Webb (head) all dressed and played.
Ford had missed five games after being injured against Penn State. Caprara was injured against Oklahoma State and had an abortive comeback attempt against Marshall. Price and Webb were injured against Virginia.
“It’s been a different experience,” Caprara said of his time off. “I’ve never been in this situation, honestly. It gets frustrating at time. I did the rehab and did everything I could to get back. It was good to get some live reps tonight. Just to get back in the swing of things. There was definitely some plays out there that I wish I could get back but I can’t. It’s definitely something to build off and move on for the rest of the season.”
Caprara added that he’s as close to 100 percent as he can be. Cornerback Avonte Maddox (left elbow) dressed but did not play. Linebacker Bam Bradley (upper body) and wide receiver Zach Challingsworth (upper extremity) did not dress.