PITTSBURGH — Pitt starting quarterback Max Browne will be out for the season after having shoulder surgery this week for an injury suffered against Syracuse last Saturday, head coach Pat Narduzzi revealed during his final media briefing of the week.
It’s another blow in what is quickly becoming a lost season for the Panthers, who fell to 2-4 over the weekend.
Pitt hosts No. 20 NC State this weekend at Heinz Field and still has No. 11 Miami and No. 15 Virginia Tech on the schedule, putting the Panthers’ nine-season bowl streak in serious doubt.
How did it happen? There’s been a lot that’s gone bad on the field, but just as much of what has happened to the Panthers this year has taken place off it.
Browne ends his season having started just five games and seemed like he was finally playing his best football before he went down.
Starting fullback George Aston has been ruled out for another week. He’s been limited to just two games with ankle and knee injuries. Last season, Aston scored 10 touchdowns for the Panthers.
They don’t have one from the fullback spot this year, while the offensive line has had trouble opening up running lanes and — as shown on the play that ended Browne’s season on Saturday — Pitt has struggled to protect the passer.
The running issues won’t be helped by dynamic sophomore back Chawntez Moss. After jumping the line over Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall for playing time as a true freshman a year ago, Moss did not play in what was likely a suspension during the season opener against Youngstown State, was largely ineffective after that and now will serve the second game of a still-indefinite suspension on Saturday.
Through six weeks, Pitt’s offensive line still hasn’t gelled, with eight players still getting serious playing time. Part of that problem can likely be attributed to the fact that redshirt junior lineman Alex Bookser was suspended for the first week of the season and didn’t get many first-team reps as a result.
Bookser started the season at right guard, where he played last year, but now he’s playing right tackle. During bowl practice and throughout the spring, he played center. The versatility is no doubt a good thing, but imagine how much better Bookser would be if he’d been practicing at right tackle since January.
When the Pitt offense hasn’t been able to run the ball, they haven’t been able to convert on third down, either. The receiving corps has deep threats in Jester Weah and Aaron Mathews and catch-and-run specialists in Maurice Ffrench and Quadree Henderson, but as far as technical route-running, none of their receivers did it better than Tre Tipton a year ago. Rafael Araujo-Lopes has stepped up well in his absence, but he’s just one player and another option like Tipton, who is out for the year with a non-football knee injury, would have made a big difference.
It’s gone much the same for the Pitt defense. The Panthers were gashed against Georgia Tech for 436 yards rushing, after shutting down the triple option a year ago. In that game, the Panthers were able to stuff the dive play, forcing the Yellow Jackets to rush outside. This year, B-back KirVonte Benson had 196 yards on 29 carries.
Of course, he was running against a defensive line that’s been playing without would-be seniors Rori Blair and Jeremiah Taleni, who were both dismissed from the team over the summer. In their place, redshirt freshmen Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp have performed well, but they remain freshmen with a lot to learn. Consider what happened in Atlanta a lesson.
One of the key plays in the loss against Syracuse was a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty against redshirt freshman middle linebacker Chase Pine. Pine has been backing up Saleem Brightwell at the middle linebacker spot that was supposed to belong to senior Quintin Wirginis.
But Wirginis spent three games suspended and then another non-football injury claimed the rest of his season, so Pine — another redshirt freshman — has gotten playing time. He made a freshman mistake on Saturday.
In the secondary, Pitt’s corners have performed well above the level they did in 2016. Against Oklahoma State, however, the Cowboys tortured Pitt’s inexperienced safeties. Of course, the Panthers were playing that game without Damar Hamlin, who was still recovering from offseason surgery, and Jordan Whitehead, who was suspended for three games.
With Hamlin and Whitehead back in the fold, Pitt was able to unveil a new wrinkle to the defense to help shut down the Syracuse spread, which is stylistically very similar to what Oklahoma State runs. That option wasn’t available earlier in the season because of the personnel that were available — and those that weren’t.
Clearly, there are other things that have gone wrong with the Pitt season. Browne himself did not start well. The rest of the offensive line hasn’t played well enough. The offensive play calling has clearly taken a step back from a year ago.
But when evaluating the first half of the 2017 Pitt season, it’s tough to get past the number of impactful players Pitt has spent time without.