Mitchell Northam gives us his thoughts following this afternoon’s Pitt-Georgia Tech game.
ATLANTA – Georgia Tech ran, ran, ran and ran some more against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday in Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The Yellow Jackets piled up 436 rushing yards on their way to a 35-17 win over the Panthers to open up ACC play.
It’s Pitt’s third consecutive loss and makes it 1-3 for the first time since 2005. That team went 5-6 in Dave Wannstedt’s first season as head coach.
YOUNG DEFENSE EXPOSED
Tech torched Pitt with its triple option attack, getting yards on dives, pitches, flips and even a few more passing. B-Back KirVonte Benson rumbled his way to 196 yards and two scores, while TaQuan Marshall sliced, sprinted and spun for 112 yards and two scores. With the duo, Tech had some smash and dash, and wrecked Pitt’s budding defense.
While Pitt recovered four fumbles, it didn’t get after Tech’s ball carriers early enough. Only twice did Pitt stop Tech in the backfield, thanks to a pair of tackle-for-losses from Seun Idowu and Saleem Brightwell. The duo combined for 23 tackles.
Panthers’ third-year head coach Pat Narduzzi didn’t throw blame on one player or unit for the loss. In the post-game press conference, all he wanted to talk about was sustaining drives and the difference in time of possession. And for good reason too, as Tech had the ball about 10 minutes longer than Pitt did, and the Panthers converted on third down just once out of 13 tries.
“It comes down to possession. You talk about (triple-option dives up the middle) – they had 67 rushes. You’re not going to win a football game (when you allow that many rushes),” Narduzzi said. “… I’m not worried about rushing yards. I’m worried about wins and losses, and if you’re (giving Tech’s offense) 10 more minutes, you’re going to be in trouble.”
For Pitt, the thought coming into conference play was that it might be a reset of sorts – a fresh start – after it had back-to-back losses against Penn State and Oklahoma State.
Instead, the Panthers were whupped. Pitt was lethargic on offense – scoring just one touchdown – and were handily bested on defense. The last time Pitt allowed an opponent to rush for more than 400 yards was when Navy – another team with triple option expertise – ran circles around the Panthers in the 2015 Military Bowl.
OFFENSE FAILED TO CAPITALIZE
To be fair, this loss isn’t solely on the Pitt defense. It did give up buckets of yards, but it gave its offense four extra possessions by recovering fumbles. And the offense didn’t do anything with those possessions, many times quickly exiting the field.
Pitt’s offense tallied six three-and-outs, and failed to score after halftime. It’s opening possession was perfect, as the Panthers marched 78 yards in five plays and scored a touchdown, but the offense never recaptured that magic.
“You should win the game when you have four turnovers,” Narduzzi said. “We got out there offensively and didn’t take the momentum with the sudden change and do anything with it. That’s probably the most disappointing thing. Some of these guys on offense aren’t playing their best football, and some of them are seniors. They’ve got to play better if you’re going to win ballgames.”
RUSHING GAME NON-EXISTENT
The last time Pitt failed to rush for at least 50 yards was Nov. 23, 2013 against Syracuse. Tom Savage led the Panthers to a narrow win, but the Orange held the Panthers to 21 yards on the ground.
On Saturday in Atlanta, Pitt ran for just 37 yards on 20 attempts for 1.9 yards-per-carry average. Narduzzi said he doesn’t care about rushing yards, and he only cares about wins and losses – but teams don’t typically win when they can’t rush for more than 1.9 yards at a time.
And when teams can’t run the ball effectively, it often makes them one-dimensional, especially if they are playing from behind.
“You’re handcuffed in a pool. Not a good day. You’re going to drown,” Narduzzi said. “If you can’t run the football you’re going to be in trouble. 37 yards is unacceptable.”
Much of Pitt’s problems have been blamed on its youth, but its offensive line isn’t really that young. In the two-deep depth chart, three seniors and five juniors are listed. Against Tech, the unit allowed three sacks and a total of seven tackles for loss.
“I think it starts in practice. I’ll take that blame for the last couple weeks on us. As the leader of the O-Line, I got to get these guys rolling a little bit better,” said Brian O’Neill, Pitt’s junior left tackle. “Whenever we lose, I’m really frustrated. I hate to lose.
DINUCCI WON THE JOB, APPARENTLY
That subhead isn’t an opinion.
Completing 12-of-19 passes for 110 yards and a lone score is enough to win Pitt’s starting quarterback job, according to Narduzzi.
“Coach Narduzzi just told me I’m still the starter,” said Ben DiNucci, a redshirt sophomore who got the start at Tech over senior captain Max Browne. “So, I’m going to take this week the same. First start is always tough, getting a feel for everything. … He said I’m still the guy, so that’s good to hear.”
DiNucci was good and bad in his first career collegiate start.
The good was that he took care of the ball. He didn’t throw any interceptions, he didn’t fumble, he threw it away when he needed to and he scrambled out of a few sacks.
At the same time, DiNucci played conservatively most of the time and often settled for check downs instead of throwing downfield. Several times, as Pitt was facing a third-and-long, he threw passes to receivers who weren’t past the sticks.
DiNucci’s longest completion was to Qadree Ollison for 28 yards, Pitt’s lone offensive touchdown.
Browne finished the game, taking snaps on Pitt’s final two drives. He threw for 88 yards on 15 attempts.
WHITEHEAD PROVIDES BOOST IN RETURN
A positive for Pitt on Saturday was that Jordan Whitehead returned from a three-game suspension and looked solid in his first game back since Nov. 2016.
“I definitely thought about how many games it’s been since I last played,” Whitehead said. “I was just trying to play football. The coaches prepared me all week. I was ready for it. I wanted to be out there with the team.”
Whitehead finished the game with seven tackles, a fumble recovery and 35 rushing yards. He said his coaches told him to be ready to be used on offense, and he recorded two carries. The first helped set up Pitt’s opening-drive touchdown.
The junior defensive back is one of the few Pitt players who have experience facing the triple option, which made players like Damar Hamlin more comfortable.
“Just his vibe and the way he goes about the game takes the whole defense to another level,” Hamlin said. “He was just giving advice, like little tips on things (Tech does). He definitely helped us get prepared.”
Hamlin finished the game with seven tackles and forced a fumble, and he made a key block on Quadree Henderson’s punt return for a touchdown.
“I felt like I did a decent job, but left some plays out there, but it just wasn’t enough to get the win,” Hamlin said. “… I just have to do my job. Every play, every snap, just help the team win… We have to keep points off the board on our side.”