PITTSBURGH — Pitt did not exactly inspire a ton of confidence in Saturday’s 28-21 overtime victory over FCS foe Youngstown State.
The Panthers’ offense rolled early before stuttered and literally and figuratively fumbling away the lead. The defense was torched for over 100 yards rushing and 300 yards passing. On special teams, freshman kicker Alex Kessman missed two field goals and Quadree Henderson was largely contained in the return game.
In short, Pitt’s Week 1 went about as badly as it can go for a team whose record now stands at 1-0. As always, here’s my five takeaways from Pitt’s narrow victory, reaction from the locker room and what it means going forward.
PITT GOT TOO CUTE
Pat Narduzzi didn’t exactly come out and say it after the game, but he also didn’t have to. After roaring out to a 21-0 first-half lead, Pitt got cute, deciding to eschew whatever game plan they had coming in and simply gave the ball to Qadree Ollison as much as he could handle.
Youngstown State head coach Bo Polini was more than smart enough to figure out what was going on and stacked the box against Pitt’s running game.
There’s two big takeaways here. One, Pitt got too cute and almost lost a game against an FCS team because they were more worried about holding back parts of the playbook for Penn State.
“We did some of the things we wanted to do and we held some stuff just to save it,” Narduzzi said.
Two, Pitt’s offensive line looked like world-beaters in the first half as Youngstown State’s defense was running all over the place worried about double teaming Jester Weah, stopping Henderson’s jet sweeps and everything else.
When presented with little else to focus on, even the Penguins were able to bottle up Pitt’s running game. Ollison finished with 91 yards on 22 carries, which is just a hair over four yards per carry, and it went down hill from there, with Darrin Hall averaging exactly four (13 carries, 52 yards) and true freshman A.J. Davis getting just eight yards on four tries.
To be fair, the running game was working in the first half, but when it got shut down abruptly in the second, it took Pitt too long to find a new way to spark the offense. Here’s Ollison on his big workload and how Pitt’s offense needs to improve.
When asked to kick things into a higher gear when the game got closer, quarterback Max Browne was seemingly unable to. He made some nice throws when he had time, but more often than not, didn’t have as much time as he’d like. He didn’t handle the pressure particularly well, either, getting sacked three times and fumbling once and not connecting with a single pass outside the pocket. I have a feeling what to do when plays start to break down will be a big focus of Pitt’s offense this week in practice. Here’s Browne and Henderson on getting in sync on scramble drills.
Pitt looked like a mess attempting to make substitutions all game long on offense and defense. They used five timeouts, all of them on offense, and most of them because they either couldn’t get the play in on time or couldn’t get substitutions made quickly enough. On defense, they seemed to have a slightly easier time, but Pitt did start one play with 10 men on the field.
“Probably the worst thing we did in the first half was blow three time outs just on substitution and running out the clock,” Narduzzi said. “We did not do a good job with our timeouts today.”
The one defensive play where Pitt started shorthanded on defense did provide a good moment. Walk-on safety Rimoni Dorsey was sent onto the field just as the Penguins were about to snap the ball. He just sprinted into an open space in the defense and happened to run right into Youngstown State tight end Kevin Rader, who had caught a short pass. Dorsey made the tackle, stopped Rader three yards short of a first down and forced a punt. It was the first collegiate down played for the redshirt sophomore.
Kessman’s first gameday was a mix bag. He had the two big misses, but he was 3 of 3 on extra points and also kicked off well, helping to pin the Penguins back deep in their zone several times. Narduzzi said he hasn’t lost any confidence in his freshman kicker.
“He did a great job on those extra points,” Narduzzi said. “I’m glad he didn’t have to go in there in overtime to kick a field goal to tie it up or get it done. He’s a freshman. He’ll be so much better. He’s a tough kid and I don’t worry about him at all.”
Pitt replaced all four members of its defensive line from last season and they looked like it on Saturday. They got very little pass rush from the front four and gave up over 100 yards on the ground.
“I’m obviously to happy with that,” Narduzzi said. “In the third quarter, they started to hit us on some jets sweeps, which we’ve seen every day in practice. They did a nice job of mixing it up and we didn’t make plays when we needed to.”
Dwayne Hendrix was supposed to be one of Pitt’s primary pass-rushing options to help replace ACC sack leader Ejuan Price. Here’s Hendrix on the shortcomings of Pitt’s defensive line on Saturday.
Pitt is a young team and even where the Panthers aren’t, they’re often also inexperienced. There’s something to be said for going through some adversity early on in the season, especially considered what Pitt faces next: back-to-back games against ranked teams in Penn State and Oklahoma State.
“It’s nice to have adversity, guys,” Narduzzi said. “You find out how your guys are going to react. It’s not easy.”
Here’s linebacker Seun Idowu on how adversity this week could help a young team next week in a hostile environment in Penn State.