STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Does Pitt have a quarterback controversy?
It sort of seemed like it after the Panthers struggled through three quarters under Max Browne in Saturday’s 33-14 loss to Penn State before backup Ben DiNucci finally got the Panthers across the goal line in the fourth quarter and led yet another long drive afterwards.
DiNucci provided the offense a spark that it lacked at times throughout the day, particularly with his ability to escape pressure in the pocked and scramble.
Browne was on the sideline getting treatment the first time DiNucci entered the game and then after his pass to Darrin Hall went for a safety, head coach Pat Narduzzi decided it would be more prudent to remove Browne from the game due to health concerns with the outcome essentially no longer in doubt.
“It was just concern for him,” Narduzzi said. “If you looked at his face, he got a nice gash. No concussion, I don’t think, but he had a good gash and a black eye. I don’t know what happened on that play, but it didn’t seem like we protected the quarterback very well.”
But Narduzzi admitted that he thought DiNucci brought a spark to the offense.
“He gives us a spark because he can run,” Narduzzi said. “I told you he’s a good quarterback, too. I think he can win games. It was good to get him some action over there. He scores one the run. He can scramble. He’s got to make good decisions all the time, but I was happy to get him in there at the end. He made a couple nice throws.”
So does Pitt have a quarterback controversy? Well, maybe. Narduzzi said definitively that Browne will be the team’s starter next week as No. 11 Oklahoma State visits Heinz Field. But he did leave the door open for more playing time for DiNucci going forward.
“We’ll look at the tape. He did some nice things. He’s a good football player and so is Max. I have faith in both of these guys.”
Here’s more from Browne on the offense’s difficulties against Penn State:
RUNNING GAME ROLLING
Pitt’s offense is a pro-style offense that is supposed to build long drives, dominate time of possession and help keep the defense off the field. The turnovers, especially Browne’s two interceptions and safety were costly and kept Pitt from winning the game.
But the running game actually got on something of a roll, even though the offense was one-dimensional for most of the day. The Panthers out-gained the Lions, 155-148 on the ground and Qadree Ollison toted the rock 15 times for 96 yards for a 6.4-yard per carry average.
Chawntez Moss made his first appearance of the season and looked good, spelling Ollison for 46 yards on 11 carries. Ollison thought Pitt’s offense line made a difference, opening up running lanes where they weren’t available against Youngstown State last week.
“Our offensive line did a tremendous job in the running game,” Ollison said. “They were just moving them and giving us places to run, giving us holes to run through.”
The offense’s success on the ground plays into the issue of who should play quarterback. Pitt clearly doesn’t need an elite downfield passing threat to move the chains. Browne can be that guy if he has time to throw and his receiver make plays.
But Browne made some mistakes, his receivers had some drops and his longest pass play of the day ended up being a 30-yard catch and run by Ollison. If the Panthers aren’t going to have a downfield passing attack, the mobility DiNucci brings to the quarterback spot becomes a much bigger advantage.
RED ZONE WOES
Pitt put together a 15-play, 31-yard drive towards the end of the first quarter that took 8:02 off the clock and they got no points for it when Alex Officer was beaten by Shareef Miller for a sack and then committed an offside penalty to stall the drive.
In the second quarter, Pitt again drove 15 plays, this time for 77 yards in 5:30, but had to settle for a 28-yard Alex Kessman field goal.
Then in the third quarter, the Panthers drove nine plays and 59 yards over 4:29, but again had just a Kessman kick to show for it.
That’s 18:01 of time of possession and the Panthers got just six points to show for it. One the one hand, that much time of possession is undoubtedly a positive, but Pitt getting just 14 points in four trips to the red zone is not good enough.
“That was one of the keys,” Ollison said. “We’ve got to execute in the red zone. We’ve got to do better getting six points instead of three. … That was really big.”
More from Ollison and also wide receiver Jester Weah on the red zone deficiencies and more after Pitt’s loss:
D ON THE RISE?
Pitt’s young defense performed pretty well given the circumstances, with the offense giving away two points and essentially another seven after Grant Haley’s long return of Browne’s pick set the Lions up with first and goal.
Take those away, and Pitt’s defense gave up 24 points. There won’t be many defenses that do better than that against Penn State this year. Narduzzi agreed and thought his defense showed growth from Week 1.
“We’re young football team, that I think is going to grow and get better every game,” he said. “I thought we had a better overall game than we had a week ago, minus a couple turnovers, against a better football team. There’s a lot of good things that you see. We just have to polish them up and get better.”
Here’s Seun Idowu, Dewayne Hendrix, Avonte Maddox and Dennis Briggs on what Pitt can take away from the loss on defense.
MISSING NO. 10
Quadree Henderson finished the day with two rushes and two carries from scrimmage for a net total of zero yards.
That’s not what Pitt was looking for from one of the players the Panthers were expected to rely upon to be a big part of the offense. Narduzzi thought Henderson didn’t do a good enough job of taking what was given against a good-tackling squad.
“Quadree danced around a little bit too much,” Narduzzi said. “They did a nice job of taking shots and didn’t give him a chance to wiggle much, I thought. We talked about just putting your foot in the ground and going.”
Henderson also averaged just 4.3 yards on three punt returns, made a gaffe by calling for a fair catch on his own five and averaged 16.5 yards on two kickoff returns, with Pitt twice starting inside its own 25-yard line on his returns.