BLACKSBURG, Va. — Pitt coming up 1 yard short of a dramatic, go-ahead touchdown as the clock ticked off the scoreboard at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium serves as a fitting allegory for the Panthers’ 2017 season.
The Panthers came into the game 15.5-point underdogs, abandoned their starting quarterback after one quarter, never were able to run the ball, lost the turnover battle, gave up too many rushing yards, were dominated in time of possession and mangled their clock management decisions.
Yet, after Jester Weah’s 74-yard reception, the Panthers had four shots from inside the two yard line to come up with a game winner.
They couldn’t do it.
It’s easy to get caught up in the decisions made on those final four plays — the timeouts Pitt didn’t have that they could have and the play calls of three inside handoffs when Darrin Hall and the inside running game had been plugged up all day can all be rightly questioned.
But while the final yard was dramatic, Pitt had plenty of opportunities to put the game away beforehand and were unable to.
Freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett threw a costly interception after Pitt had taken the lead on a clever fake field goal. After Pickett’s interception, Avonte Maddox slipped covering a pass route and Jordan Whitehead couldn’t stop Cam Phillips from falling forward into the end zone for the Hokies’ eventual game-winning score. Pitt had two shots with the ball after surrendering the lead late, and outside of Weah’s 74-yard catch-and-run, Pitt gained 16 yards on 10 plays.
Pitt ended up one yard and one play short, and that play could have happened at any point in the game for the Panthers to turn a heartbreaking loss into an upset victory.
It was the same story 10 days earlier at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, when Pitt’s defense couldn’t get off the field late, Quadree Henderson fumbled going into the end zone and the Panthers missed a handful of tackles on the opening kickoff that was returned for a touchdown.
The bottom line is that Pitt had plenty of opportunities over the last two games to make the plays they needed to make to win the game. They didn’t. Those opportunities have come in all phases, with pretty much every available player on the field (down to the backup long snapper on Saturday).
Pitt has made some nice plays. Ryan Winslow’s fake-field goal pass to Nate Bossory for the go-ahead score was one of those. But there have not been consistently been enough of them for the Panthers to be a winning team.
Pitt came into the 2017 season as a young team, particularly on defense. Injuries have made it even younger. When the seniors walk on senior day at Heinz Field next Friday, only Winslow will have started every game this season.
Redshirt senior Andrew Motuapuaka had two tackles on Virginia Tech’s goal-line stand. Pitt doesn’t have a redshirt senior starter on defense.
The Panthers lost starting quarterback Max Browne to an injury when he was playing some of his best football. Even on talented teams, that can be a death knell. Look at what has happened to Florida State after the Seminoles lost quarterback Deondre Francois for the season. The AP’s preseason No. 3 team in the country now sits at 4-6.
In Browne’s place, neither Pickett nor Ben DiNucci was able to do enough to get the Panthers over the hump.
At the end of the day and nearing the end of the season, the Panthers didn’t have enough talent and experience to be a winning football team in 2017. Their bowl hopes are likely not 100 percent extinguished — several 5-7 teams will probably be selected this year and the Panthers have a relatively high APR — but the summation of the season remains in the result of the final drive against the Hokies.
Pitt had enough talent to drive 80 yards with the game on the line. They couldn’t make it to 81.
But that should not discount the way the young Panthers stepped up in a hostile environment with what was essentially their season on the line.
“We’ve got a heck of a football team in there,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I just love those guys. I couldn’t say more great things about the character of this football team. You can talk about this, you can talk about that, those guys played their tails off as they wore that Pitt logo on their chest and as a football coach, that’s all you can ask for.”
DOING MORE WITH LESS
Maddox, a senior likely playing his next-to-last game in a Pitt uniform, might have played his best one. Sidelined by a right elbow injury three weeks ago at Duke, Maddox returned to the field and was thrown at early and often by Josh Jackson and the Virginia Tech offense.
Wearing a large brace on his right arm, Maddox didn’t have anywhere near his full range of motion, but he was able to play through it for three tackles, three pass breakups and a diving interception.
“He was mad at me last week,” Narduzzi said of his decision to hold Maddox out against North Carolina. “He made some great plays out there. He played his tail off.”
Maddox’s performance against the Hokies was particularly notable, considering what the Virginia Tech offense had done against the Panthers last season, when the Hokies passed for 406 yards and two touchdowns in a win at Heinz Field. That game — and the Syracuse one that followed four weeks later — stuck in the minds of Pitt’s defensive backs as they started preparing for the 2017 season.
Starting in the spring, secondary coach Renaldo Hill made a concerted effort to find a way to stop the fade and the fade-stop, two plays that tortured Pitt in 2016. While Pitt took the loss on Saturday, it was mission accomplished from that unit.
Jackson finished with just 218 yards in the air and the lone passing touchdown came when Maddox lost his footing. After Pitt came out in a nickel look to fluster Syracuse in October, they played mostly base defense against the Hokies. The improvement came in the form of individual improvement from Maddox and Dane Jackson.
“We stopped the fades,’ Narduzzi said. “We stopped the fade stops.”
They did it while Virginia Tech was targeting Maddox’s wonky arm, or at least that’s what it seemed like to him.
“It looked like it,” Maddox said. “I liked it a lot. … They came out in certain formations and you now you’ll get certain things, just like last year. Maybe they expected it (would work). We just came in to compete better.”
The Panthers did so with a mixed up secondary that didn’t see much stability outside of the two starting corners. Starting free safety Damar Hamlin traveled and dressed but did not play, a decision Narduzzi called precautionary. In his place, Dennis Briggs, Phil Campbell and Jazzee Stocker all saw significant playing time, with Jordan Whitehead flipping back and forth between safety spots.
Bricen Garner and Therran Coleman also did not play. Narduzzi said Coleman was also held out as a precaution. He was injured against Duke and did not play against Virginia, but played some against North Carolina.
NOWHERE TO RUN
Virginia Tech’s goal line stand was nothing that the Hokies hadn’t been doing all game. After three weeks of breakout performances, Hall was shut down by Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech defense. He finished the game with just four yards on 15 carries.
The Hokies had the No. 33 rushing defense in the country coming into the game and it seemed from the beginning that Foster and company seemed content to stop the run and make Pitt pass.
“I think they did some different things in terms of what we’ve seen the last couple of weeks from other teams,” left tackle Brian O’Neill said. “Their two (defensive tackles) were really good, probably the two best inside guys we’ve seen all year. We need to execute better and play better against a higher level of competition than we did today.”
With the Hokies stacking the box against the run, Pitt was forced to go to the air more than they have all season.
The Pitt coaching staff suspected that was going to be a possibility, so a plan was made that the Panthers would re-evaluate their starting quarterback situation after one quarter. If they were able to run the ball, DiNucci would stay in the game. If not, they would take up Foster’s dare to throw the ball and do so with Pickett, who saw his most extensive playing time of the season.
“We knew that (they might stack the box),” Narduzzi said. “That’s why Kenny was in the game. He’s probably a better passer at this point. He did give us a shot with some of the balls he threw. There wasn’t as much scrambling. We’ll continue to evaluate that position.”
“I’ll watch the film and I’ll learn from it,” Pickett said. “This one definitely stings.”
Pitt’s final touchdown came on a new fake that Narduzzi said special teams coordinator Andre Powell has been sitting on for a little while. The Panthers lined up in a swinging gate look and backup long snapper Nate Bossory snapped to Hall, who tossed it to Winslow. Winslow then threw a strike up the middle back to Bossory while rolling to his right.
“It was a heck of a play by Nate Bossory,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a senior walk-on who has done everything we’ve asked of him and worked his tail off. He’s a fighter. He dislocated his shoulder (on the play.) … It was a heck of a catch and I knew he’d make the play. I’ve seen they guy make plays on the scout field for three years now. I had no doubts if the ball was near him, he’d catch it and come down with it.”