SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The first bad news of the day for Pitt on Saturday was that sophomore running back Chawntez Moss did not make the trip to Syracuse with the team.
After the Panthers lost, 27-24 to the Orange on the field, the news got even worse. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi announced after the game that Moss is suspended indefinitely.
Moss had 113 yards on 41 carries and two touchdowns for Pitt over the last four games. He also caught five passes for 71 yards and a score. Moss also did not play in the season opener against Youngstown State. No specific reason for his absence in that game was given at the time. Narduzzi only confirmed that Moss is suspended.
“At this point he didn’t make the trip and he’s suspended indefinitely until, ya know, that’s all I can say about that one,” Narduzzi said. “He’s out until further notice.”
Qadree Ollison started in Moss’s place. He had also started in the team’s first four games. Ollison finished the day with 28 yards on six carries for a 4.7-yard per carry average and had a 19-yard touchdown that brought the Panthers to within a field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Freshman A.J. Davis played sparingly and had only one carry for two yards.
The top rushing threat for the Panthers was safety Jordan Whitehead, who had 73 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He also scored on a 2-point conversion.
Whitehead’s success, combined with the overall struggles of the Pitt offense and Moss’s suspension, might mean an even larger role for him on offense going forward.
“I asked coach Watson, I said, ‘Are they only blocking for Jordan Whitehead and they don’t block for anybody else or is it just he’s that good and we’re not as good in the backfield?’” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to have to get him on an IV after the first quarter, second quarter and third quarter and fourth quarter. He’s got the motor to do it. He’s a special kid. He’s a good football player.”
Maybe even more impressively, Whitehead had a very limited play selection. Most of his touches came on a simple sweep handoff behind left tackle Brian O’Neill and left guard Alex Officer.
“You know any time he gets the ball, something’s gonna be done,” O’Neill said. “It gives you a lot of confidence as an offensive lineman blocking for a guy like that. Kinda just like any other player on the team, you kinda do your job, and we just so happened to be blocking for him well today. I wish we could’ve gotten some better blocks for other guys.”
Here’s more from Whitehead on his day of two-way play.
Starting quarterback Max Browne, coming off his best game at Pitt, left the game with an injury in the third quarter and did not return. After the game, Narduzzi said that Browne “will probably be out a couple weeks.”
Ben DiNucci replaced Browne and played well, leading Pitt on two straight scoring drives. But twice, DiNucci was knocked out of the game when his helmet was dislodged and that’s when drama unfolded.
When Browne went down, true freshman Kenny Pickett readied himself as the third quarterback. When DiNucci had to leave the game, Pickett came into the game. Instead of using Pickett and burning his redshirt on one play, Narduzzi called a time out.
On the final play of the game, it happened again. DiNucci was sacked, his helmet was dislodged and he had to come out of the game. With Pitt out of timeouts, Pickett came into the game and completed a pass to Rafael Araujo-Lopes as time expired.
Narduzzi said that he didn’t hesitate to use Pickett, the next quarterback on his depth chart, despite his redshirt status.
“He’s our third-best quarterback,” Narduzzi said. “I think Max will probably be out a couple weeks and we’re going to need a guy. I had no hesitation. That guy’s going to be a good football player. He’s going to have to play the next couple weeks until Max comes back.”
Narduzzi clarified that while he expects Pickett to play, he doesn’t expect him to start next week against North Carolina State.
“No, not at all,” he said. “You see quarterbacks helmets fall off all the time for some reason. I’m going to talk to (equipment manager Tim “Ox” Enright) about getting some new chin straps or something, but he’s going to have to go in. You need two quarterbacks and he’s the next guy. It’s only a matter of that.”
What that means going forward is pretty easy to figure out. Browne is out, likely for an extended period of time. He left the building with his right arm in a sling. DiNucci will start next week, but the team hasn’t been overwhelmed by what DiNucci has done when give multiple opportunities this year, and that’s why they went back to Browne before Rice.
DiNucci is going to get another shot, but if he falters again, Pickett will be the next man up at that point. He’ll also get more reps with the starting units going forward, though he has been with that group for most of the year.
As far as Thomas MacVittie, it’s clear that he’s been passed on the depth chart by Pickett. Beyond that, it’s much less clear. He’s been working on the punt team. Could a position change be in the works? He played tight end in high school. Otherwise, he could go into a three-way battle next fall starting out as the third man.
Here’s more from DiNucci:
Pitt’s defense gave up 30 costly yards of penalties in the second and third quarter as Dewayne Hendrix was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and Chase Pine delivered a late hit on the quarterback.
Narduzzi called Pine’s play “unacceptable” and while many bang the drum for young, talented players to get into the game more, Pine showed the folly of that line of thinking with a costly freshman mistake.
On the other hand, Hendrix is a senior that should seemingly know better, though Narduzzi doubted the veracity of the penalty call.
“We had two personal fouls: One on Chase Pine, a late hit on the quarterback, unacceptable,” Narduzzi said. “That will hurt you on third down. Another one on Dewayne Hendrix, which, we’ll look at the tape on that one. A lot of things missed there.”
NICKEL AND DIME
Pitt started the game with three defensive backs for the first time under Narduzzi and also played three cornerbacks for the first time, with Therran Coleman joining Dane Jackson and Avonte Maddox. Phillipie Motley also returned from injury to see some playing time.
The nickel package is a huge departure from what Pitt has always done under Narduzzi, even against spread offenses, and it seemed to work during the first half, as Pitt held Steve Ishmael to three catches for 56 yards in the first half.
In the second half, with the Orange in the lead, they ran the ball against Pitt’s nickel and was able to burn almost six minutes off the clock on the game’s penultimate drive.
“I think it played pretty good until the end when obviously they’re running the ball just trying to eat the clock up and they took the clock at the end of the game,” Narduzzi said. “We couldn’t get off the field, whether it was jumping offsides on third down and one or two. Whatever it was, we just couldn’t get off the field. Quarterback keeper, which they pulled all day. They put it in there when the game was tight.”
Here’s Maddox on the three-corner look and more:
BLOCKING REMAINS A PROBLEM
Whether it was opening up lanes for the running game or protecting Browne, Pitt’s offensive line had another below-the-bar game in the results column. Here’s O’Neill discussing what went wrong: