PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s secondary was beaten pretty much every way a secondary could be beaten on Saturdays as Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph torched the Panthers to the tune of 497 yards and 5 touchdowns.
But for the most part, what happened was pretty simple. Pitt was focused on not letting James Washington dominate them like he did a year ago. As a result, they plastered their best corner, Avonte Maddox, on Washington and gave him deep help as often as they could.
Oklahoma State was more than ready for the change. Rudolph didn’t even look at Washington until the Cowboys were leading, 35-0.
Instead, Rudolph targeted Pitt’s safeties, with slot receiver Jalen McCleskey collecting seven catches for 162 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys’ other slot back, Dillon Stoner, had five catches for 100 yards and touchdown. On the other side of the field, Marcell Ateman had four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown against Dane Jackson.
Only later did the Cowboys target Washington. By then, the game was already out of hand. It was clearly a tactical and strategic loss for the Panthers, as their changes to help shut down Washington left other areas of the defense vulnerable and Dennis Briggs and Bricen Garner couldn’t handle the additional workload at the safety spot.
Narduzzi said it wasn’t a matter of making adjustments, citing the adjustments that he’d already made coming into the game.
“We are changing,” he said. “If you look at it, there’s a lot of change back there. There’s some different things. We played a lot of man free, a lot of quarters and a lot of Cover 3. But then, different things happen. We don’t stop the run early.”
Here’s Maddox and Briggs on how the Cowboys beat the Panthers’ coverage schemes once again.
THIRD TIMES’ THE CHARM
Pitt actually played some pretty good defense on first and second down at times, but the Panthers were brutal on third downs, especially in the first half when the Cowboys went 9 for 9 on third down.
On one series, after Ryan Winslow pinned the Cowboys back the 4-yard line with a great punt, Rashad Weaver sacked Rudolph, then stuffed Justice Hill for no gain to set up third and long. But on what was essentially a give-up handoff, Hill broke Garner’s tackle and went for 12 yards and a first down.
It was an example of what plagued the defense all day. They didn’t get off the field on third down and they also had a shockingly bad day tackling, whether it was down field or on one of the many times they had Rudolph in their sights and couldn’t close.
“We had opportunities; we’re whiffing on them,” Narduzzi said. “For some of you older folks, if Fran Tarkenton wasn’t back there … I think I said it last Thursday or Friday, that’s not what he does is be mobile, but we fell off of him. We just didn’t make plays when we had opportunities. If you let that guy have the opportunity with time to throw the ball down the field, then you’re going to have problems and we had problems. When you get to him, you have to get him down. We’ve had opportunities, really for the last three weeks to get sacks and we haven’t gotten them.”
Pitt’s quarterback controversy has morphed into a full-blown battle, with Max Browne getting benched for Ben DiNucci in the second quarter and the game already out of hand at 35-0.
DiNucci finished 13 of 25 for 228 yards and a touchdown, but two interceptions after Browne had posted an uninspiring 7 of 10 for 60-yard line. Narduzzi said he though DiNucci brought a spark that the offensive didn’t have under Browne.
“You look at it, Max wasn’t very productive when he was in there,” Narduzzi said. “He misses a long shot to Jester which could just give you some life and then Ben comes in. … Ben came in and gave us the spark that we thought he could. That’s why we made the decision to put him in.”
Narduzzi added that neither of his quarterbacks performed up to par, leaving him without a clear-cut decision for next week at Georgia Tech.
“I think we’ve got two pretty good quarterbacks,” Narduzzi said. “Do I think we have a great quarterback? No, not right now. Nathan Peterman was a great quarterback walking out of there. You miss guys like that. That’s what happens when you’re a young football team at a lot of different spots, not just the quarterback spot.”
So going forward, who will be Pitt’s starter? Narduzzi said they “have a decision to make,” but wouldn’t reveal when he’s planning on making it.
“I probably won’t tell you,” he said. “We’ll continue to evaluate them.”
Here’s DiNucci on his performance and the upcoming battle with Browne for playing time.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
Qadree Ollison was shut down, getting just six yards on seven carries. Chawntez Moss was better, with 36 yards and a touchdown on 12 rushes. Too often, the Panthers were behind down and distance wise, forcing the quarterbacks into obvious passing situations.
“We’ll look at the tape, but it starts with blocking,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve done a nice job really the last two weeks … I think we had 100 yards, which is the most we’ve had. But they’ve got some guys. Give them credit.”
SPECIAL TEAMS ON THE RISE?
Pitt’s special teams were the only unit that might be able to take credit for a decent game on Saturday. Quadree Henderson, banged up as he is, was still the team’s primary return man and was not a factor in that part of the game and Alex Kessman missed a 49-yard field goal, so it wasn’t perfect.
But Winslow had two punts downed inside the five and three inside the 20. Jason Pinnock recovered a fumbled snap in the end zone on an Oklahoma State punt to provide one-third of the team’s points.
In a day where almost nothing went right for the Panthers, the special teams may have been the least bad.