PITTSBURGH — Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has royally mangled his managing of the quarterback position since Max Browne went down with an injury last Saturday against Syracuse.
In Pitt’s 35-17 loss to North Carolina State on Saturday, Narduzzi decided to give redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci his second career start, while also saying earlier in the week that he planned on finding playing time for true freshman Kenny Pickett.
Narduzzi picked a moment at the end of the third quarter, with Pitt trailing, 21-14 to the No. 20 Wolfpack to insert his true freshman.
Pickett’s first drive was a three-and-out. His second drive was better, though an NC State defender let what should have been a pick-six slide through his fingers.
It’s not as if DiNucci had been setting the world on fire, but he had been moving the offense pretty well. He was 19 of 32 with a touchdown and an interception. But DiNucci pretty clearly had the team in position to be able to win the game. The last drive he led was moving inside the NC State territory when a holding penalty by Jaryd Jones-Smith cost Pitt 23 yards.
It was a critical time in the game. After Pickett’s first drive flamed out, the NC State offense went on another long scoring drive, and when Pickett got another try, Pitt was down by two touchdowns and faced a steep deficit.
Narduzzi’s reasoning for the timing of the switch was even stranger.
“I thought Ben DiNucci played really well in the first half. We stayed on our plan with him and Pickett as far as just, we really wanted to get Pickett in the first half, but Ben was doing a nice job. We had scored two touchdowns on offense. They had scored one. But we wanted to get Kenny into the game. We decided to get him in the game in the second half. I think he did some positive things. We need to continue to progress at the quarterback spot. In the second half, we just didn’t make plays when we needed to.”
When pressed on the matter, Narduzzi didn’t really clear anything up. DiNucci was playing well, he claimed, but he still wanted to make the switch, even only down a score.
“We decided to play him. I think Kenny’s going to be a good football player. We are going to need him somewhere. I don’t want his first action coming when he has to go in there. We’ve got a lot of confidence in both those guys. We had a lot of confidence in Kenny back in camp. You can see did some nice things out there. He made some nice throws and had a couple of nice scrambles. He is only going to get better. Like I said, it wasn’t taking Ben out because he didn’t get the job done. I think Ben had four series in the second half and I think Kenny had three. We just wanted to work it.”
If the plan was to let DiNucci try to win the game, he was certainly still in position to do so when he was removed. DiNucci was visibly frustrated on the sideline and was seemingly blindsided by the coaches’ decision.
“I was a little bit surprised,” DiNucci said. “I wasn’t necessarily aware going into this week that they were going to get him a series. But that’s ultimately their decision. The only thing I can do is respect it and try to help him out as much as possible. … I didn’t know anything about it beforehand, so I was caught a little off guard.”
Narduzzi said that shouldn’t have been the case.
“We had talked with them prior to the game. There was communication prior to the game on what we were going to do and what the plans were prior to the game. I know it doesn’t make anybody happy. I’m sure Ben would have like to have those three series back, too. You can look back and forth. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
So clearly, there was some confusion between Narduzzi, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and DiNucci about what the plan was coming into the game and how much that plan depended on the situation of the game. In fact, Pickett said he was told he was going into the game right after the offense came off the field with the game still tied at 14-14.
“The series prior, when I started warming up, that’s when I knew I was going in,” Pickett said. “I got some throws in, got on the headset with Coach Watson, talked about what we were going to do and went from there.”
If the plan was to use Pickett no matter what, even if DiNucci was still battling with the game tied late in the second half, what was the point of starting DiNucci? The old adage is if you have two quarterbacks, you have none. That’s not always true, but Pitt has played two or more quarterbacks in each of its five games against FBS schools this year and that probably has a lot to do with why the Panthers are 0-5 in those games.
Furthermore, the flip/flop on Saturday seemed to be done in most part to correct an earlier mistake, which was burning Pickett’s redshirt a week ago. If he still hadn’t played this year, there’s almost no chance he’d have been allowed to enter the game this week.
SETTLING FOR 3
With Pitt trailing by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Narduzzi elected to try a 43-yard field goal on a 4th and 8 instead of going for a score. Freshman Alex Kessman hit the long try, but the reasoning behind it was flawed. Even after his kick, Pitt needed two scores, and with 7:56 on the clock, there was no guarantee Pitt would get two more possessions.
“The charts tell you, you get down there … you’ve gotta take the points,” Narduzzi said. “It was (fourth) down and 8. We’ll kind of go by what our chart tells us to do. I don’t question that decision at all.”
Narduzzi should immediately throw away whatever chart led to that decision. Pitt needed two touchdowns. The field goal didn’t help at all.
4TH DOWN OPTION
On Pitt’s penultimate possession, they faced a 4th and 10 just inside NC State territory. On that play, Pickett ran an option to the right and tossed it to Darrin Hall, who fumbled. What kind of call is that on a 4th and long? Well, it wasn’t the play call, according to Narduzzi.
“I’m sitting here the same as you,” he said. “They had an all-out, max blitz. Our check all week, not necessarily in the two-minute (drill), was to run the option. It was a max blitz, so it was try to check to the option or get the quarterback splatted in the backfield. Anybody that’s done it this year has tried to throw the ball and it hasn’t worked out real well. I think they attempted to do it (for the first time). That was, you know, it’s 4th and 10. I don’t think that was the ballgame, that’s for sure.”
Damar Hamlin made his first career start and had an up-and-down game. He led the team with eight tackles, but was victimized for a big pass play. Here’s Hamlin on adjusting to playing the run from the free safety spot.
Left tackle Brian O’Neill caught a DiNucci lateral and ran for 10 yards in the second quarter, nearly scoring a touchdown.
But afterward, he talked more about the quarterbacks, the team’s offensive struggles and NC State DE Bradley Chubb. Great stuff from Brian. Check it out.