NEW YORK — The 2016 Pitt football season started with a ton of promise and a big win over arch-rival Penn State back in September. Though some tough losses in a brutal schedule prevented the team from reaching it’s ultimate goal, a win on the road against No. 2 Clemson provided a ton of hope for the future.
A lot of that hope was dashed in Pitt’s 31-24 loss to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium Wednesday.
There were flashes of some of the brilliance that Pitt had displayed throughout the season, with Quadree Henderson breaking free for a 84 yards rushing, including 57 on one of his patented jet sweeps. Jester Weah took a play-action pass from Nathan Peterman and scampered 69 yards to a score.
But the devil is in the details, and there were plenty of those for the Panthers.
• George Aston, the team’s fullback whose gutty and powerful performances have made him the stuff of legend amongst Pitt fans, simply fell down untouched on his way into the end zone in the first quarter.
• Peterman had just six interceptions in 12 games coming in, but picked an awful time to pick up his seventh — as the team was on its way into the end zone early in the second quarter.
Peterman and Aston’s gaffes were two of four drives inside the Northwestern 20-yard line in which Pitt failed to come away with points. Another drive stalled when a botched snap pushed the Panthers back and Chris Blewitt missed a field goal. Pitt had been No. 9 in the nation in red-zone efficiency coming into the game, and they simply left too many points on the field to come away with a win.
“[There were] so many points we just left out there,” Narduzzi said. “They didn’t leave any out there. That’s how you lose a game. We didn’t score enough points.”
Henderson had been a lightning rod for the Panthers offensively all season, but he cost his team in the fourth quarter, as his fumble deep in Pitt’s territory handed Northwestern three points late in the game and took two minutes off the clock as Pitt was trying to mount a comeback.
• Usually reliable tight end Scott Orndoff had a pass clang off his hands in the end zone that would have tied the game on Pitt’s penultimate possession. It would have been a tough catch, but it’s one that Pitt fans are used to see Orndoff making and I’m sure he would like to have that one back.
The pass defense, one of the team’s stumbling blocks all season, stepped up in a big way, doing its part to hold Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr to 51 yards on six catches.
“Our corners did a nice job,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know if I’ve said that all year. [Avonte] Maddox and Ryan Lewis and Phillipie Motley … really happy with what those three did.”
But the defensive side of the ball had plenty of difficulties as well, as running back Justin Jackson gave the Panthers fits. He rushed for 224 yards and three touchdowns, and Pitt seemingly didn’t have an answer for anything he was trying to do.
“It was just players not making plays,” said middle linebacker Matt Galambos. “At the end of the day, a coach can make whatever play he wants. We’re just out there, 11 guys, if we’re not making that play, it’s on us.”
While the pass defense had a decent day statistically, allowing just 214 yards and a touchdown through the air while grabbing an interception, when they needed a big play to get off the field, many times they couldn’t.
Northwestern finished 9 of 19 on third-down conversions, but 4 for 4 on fourth down, including twice on the drive that resulted in the game-winning touchdown.
“They played with that attitude that they had nothing to lose,” Narduzzi said. “It’s alway tough to stop people on fourth down when you start to do that. If you have four downs to get 10 yards instead of three, it’s a little bit different. They did a good job of executing.”
NO CHANCE FOR A COMEBACK
Pitt was also the victim of a ton of unfortunate circumstances in the game, as well. Defensive end Rori Blair did not dress due to a coaches’ decision. Jordan Whitehead (arm) and Damar Hamlin (sports hernia) remained unavailable for the secondary coming into the game.
Then, the injuries started to pile up, as running backs James Conner (concussion), Darrin Hall (lower body) and Qadree Ollison (lower body), guard Dorian Johnson (right knee), quarterback Nathan Peterman (concussion) and safety Terrish Webb (lower body) all left the game and did not return.
The injuries on offense, in particular, kept Pitt from being able to drive down the field and take the lead late in the game, something the Panthers did in several of their victories this season. The 24 points scored represent the lowest output of the season, and the injuries were a big reason for it.
But Ben DiNucci, thrust into the starting quarterback spot when Peterman went down, wasn’t able to get the job done. DiNucci finished 3 of 9 for 16 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. It wasn’t just the interceptions, both of which were forced into tight coverage, that were problematic. Several of DiNucci’s incompletions were badly off-target on makable throws.
POOR SIGN FOR THE FUTURE
The Pitt quarterback position is ostensibly up for grabs this winter, with DiNucci, Thomas MacVittie, Max Browne and Kenny Pickett all in the running. But if this is as far as DiNucci has progressed in his two seasons as Pitt, it doesn’t bode well for his chances.
Redshirt senior Manny Stocker had been the team’s backup for most of the season, but Narduzzi said that DiNucci had earned the spot the last weeks. “As you build for the future, he’s picked it up mentally a lot better,” Narduzzi said.
That may be true, but what Pitt needed to win the game was for someone to come up with one or two more big plays, and DiNucci was unable to do so.
Throughout the season, Pitt’s defense has spent a lot of time chasing its tail. First, there were communication issues between corners and safeties, then they couldn’t stop the fade route, then they couldn’t tackle, then it was the bubble screen.
Every game, there seemed to be something that the opposing offense was able to exploit. Against Northwestern, Pitt gave a little bit more safety help to protect against Carr and got gashed in the running game.
It’s a clear care of there just not being enough talent to go around for Pat Narduzzi and Josh Conklin. There aren’t enough good or great players on the defense to hide the number of very average ones, and it was nothing that any amount of scheme change was going to fix. Narduzzi admitted that the real fix will come with an influx of talent, some if which is already on the roster.
“I think so,” he said. “That’s why we recruit. That’s why we coach, is to continue to develop our players. That’s what the off-season will be used for.”
Narduzzi singled out Hamlin, Therran Coleman, Jay Stocker, Bricen Garner, Henry Miller, Chase Pine and Keyshon Camp as defensive players that could potentially make an impact as soon as next season, and he can’t yet mention Paris Ford, the team’s four-star safety recruit that could play as a true freshman.