Moments after the final whistle sounded in Pitt’s 33-14 loss to Penn State on Saturday, I fired off this Twitter poll to take the temperature of the fanbase in the aftermath of a rivalry game gone wrong.
I knew at the time that I intended to look at Pitt’s two early red zone failures, which for me were the turning point in the game.
Who did Pitt miss more on Saturday?
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) September 9, 2017
It wasn’t just that Pitt got just six point on two trips inside Penn State’s 20-yard line. Those field goals came at the end of long, defense-killing, close-sucking drives. But those drives only help if you can score touchdowns. Pitt taking 8:02 to get three points when they were already behind helped Penn State more than it did them.
So, by asking whether Pitt fans though the team missed Matt Canada or Nate Peterman more, what I was really asking was: Was the issue play calling or execution?
In this week’s film study, I broke down each of Pitt’s red zone plays on those first two scoring drives to see if I could tease out a theme and decide which hurt Pitt more.
Pitt’s first red-zone play was well-designed enough, with Darrin Hall taking a jet sweep for seven yards and a first down.
On 1st and 10, Pitt went with a handoff to Qadree Ollison behind two pulling lineman, and to be honest, the Panthers just don’t block this very well. There’s only one Penn State player at the point of attack, but Jimmy Morrissey whiffs and Alex Bookser gets driven backwards to blow the play up.
On 2nd and 10, Max Browne checks down to Ollison. It’s pretty clear this isn’t his first read, but Penn State rushes just four, leaving seven men to cover the five Panthers in routes. But Ollison had no chance at all to gain yards and Browne had all day in the pocket. He’d have probably been better served hanging onto the ball and waiting to see if a receiver broke open.
On 3rd and 10, Browne again has some time, but has to deal with an straight-ahead rush that pushes the pocket back. Partially as a result, he is unable to deliver an on-target pass, missing Rafael Araujo-Lopes on a corner route. The pass could have been better, but why was Pitt running a corner route with a 5-foot-8 wideout when guys like Aaron Mathews and Rueben Flowers were available? A taller target would have given Browne a lot more margin for error.
Pitt settles for an Alex Kessman field goal and trails, 14-3.
The next time Pitt puts together a long drive was early in the third quarter and the first play was a straight-ahead power run by Chawntez Moss. Pitt blocks it well, but Penn State’s Troy Apke lowered the boom with a big hit in the hole after a three-yard gain. Nice play, better defense.
On second down, it’s a jet sweep by Quadree Henderson, a play that Pitt killed Penn State with a year ago. This time, Penn State was ready, swarming Henderson for no gain. Nothing the Pitt players could do with this one.
In another third down and obvious passing situation, Penn State blitzes, rushing six. Pitt had six blockers available, with Ollison helping the offensive line, but multiple Nittany Lions got free for a jailbreak. Browne’s pass doesn’t come close to Matt Flanagan, who was well covered even with the blitz. Jester Weah seemed to be open heading to the corner at the top of the screen, but it’s hard to fault Browne’s decision-making considering the pressure.
Pitt settled for another Kessman field goal and instead of being down, 21-14, they trailed 21-6 after two trips to the red zone.
It doesn’t seem as if there was an obvious theme. Browne was 1 for 3 for no yards, but at least one of the misses wasn’t really on him. Pitt’s running game was mostly bottled up by Penn State’s front seven, but only the Henderson jet sweep seemed to be schematically beaten.
Penn State beat Pitt at the line of scrimmage in the red zone, both in pass rush and stopping the run and that’s the biggest reason the Panthers weren’t able to punch one in. When they eventually did later in the game, it was due to the athleticism of Ben DiNucci only, and not scheme or blocking, that got them in.
Maybe I should have added Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson to my poll question. It seems the offensive line losses hurt Pitt as badly as the rest did in the red zone on Saturday.