PITTSBURGH — In four years of covering Pitt football, I’m not sure there was a bigger opportunity for the team and the program to make a statement with a victory than the one presented on Saturday at Heinz Field.
They were hosting rival Penn State, which was ranked in the top ten in the country, on national television, in prime time, in front of the second-biggest crowd in their history. They didn’t necessarily have to win. Coming in as 7.5-point underdogs, the Panthers just had to play a good game and prove that they belonged in the same league as the Penn States of the world, particularly in repose to the Nittany Lions deciding not to continue scheduling the Panthers and signing a contract with Temple.
Instead, Pitt might have played the worst 60 minutes of football I’ve seen the Panthers play. The were sloppy, undisciplined, had poor fundamentals and were so soundly beaten in all three phases of the game that it’s tough to come up with many positives.
Penn State is a good team — a more talented team than Pitt, certainly — and they deserve credit for executing when they were given opportunity after opportunity, but to be honest, Pitt mostly beat themselves. Linebacker Quintin Wirginis said Pitt “shot themselves in the foot.” Head coach Pat Narduzzi said “that wasn’t Pitt football.”
Whatever you want to call it, it was awful. If Pitt had played that poorly a week ago, they probably would have lost to Albany.
There’s so much bad to unpack that this might take a while, but here we go.
PITT WAS NOT READY TO PLAY THIS GAME
On the field before the game, Pitt’s team was as hyped up for a game as I’ve ever seen them. I’m pretty sure that turned out to be a bad thing. Pitt took 14 penalties, committed a bunch of costly mental mistakes and looked like a team that was unprepared to deal with the emotions of the moment. Narduzzi didn’t have any answers as to why, and neither did anyone else.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t know. Sometimes you just don’t know. We had two great practices. … Our football team came out cranked up. They were ready to go. But we made too many mistakes and it doesn’t matter how ready you are to go. It’s just one thing after another. Just one of those days.”
“You’ve got to stay composed in any game and especially in a big game like this,” Wirginis said. “You can’t shoot yourself in the foot.”
“No one felt like that’s how we prepared and that’s how we would come out,” defensive end Rashad Weaver said. “Those penalties, obviously no one is doing them on purpose. Maybe a big game a little bit and just letting it get to us too much.”
Narduzzi makes a big deal about this game. He talks about the rivalry, what the game means. He admits that this game is different than the rest of the ones on his schedule. He does those things in sharp contrast to James Franklin, who treats “rivalry” like it’s a swear word.
Don’t get things mistaken, Franklin cares about winning this game just as much as Narduzzi does. Nobody challenges a fumble call with one minute left in a game they’re up by 45 points for any other purpose than to rub in a victory. Franklin cares.
He just won’t say so. Is there an advantage to that? Is there a disadvantage to letting your team get hyped up like this game is bigger, better and badder than the ones that follow it? I try not to delve into amateur psychology in this space, but it feels like the emotions that the Panthers tried to play up entering this game were the ones that let them down in it.
KIRK CHRISTODOULOU’S TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY
Look, when a team gets beaten by 45 points, there’s so much blame to spread around that it’s almost unfair to highlight the travails of any one player, no matter how poorly he played, but when you’re largely responsible for a nearly 20-point swing, it’s a major factor.
Here’s the recap of Christodoulou’s first half mishaps.
1st quarter: 32-yard punt; no return.
1st quarter: Dropped snap on extra point; got tackled. Pitt lost a point.
2nd quarter: Dropped snap on field goal. Field goal was missed.
2nd quarter: Fumbled snap on punt. Turnover. Penn State scored three plays later.
3rd quarter: 27-yard punt; no return.
3rd quarter: 42-yard punt; no return.
3rd quarter: 36-yard punt returned for a touchdown.
4th quarter: 39-yard punt; -1 yard return.
4th quarter: 26-yard punt; no return.
After two straight poor exchanges, Pitt didn’t attempt another kick. It appeared that Kellen McAlone would have replaced Christodoulou if he did. But let’s not put all of this on Christodoulou. He entered the season as the backup holder to fellow redshirt freshman Jake Scarton.
Scarton performed well enough in Week 1 against Albany, but suffered an injury and had a brace on his left arm. That pressed Christodoulou into service, and well, it didn’t go well. It appeared that if Pitt had another kick that Kellen McAlone was going to be the holder, and Narduzzi seemed to confirm that after the game.
“He doesn’t need that pressure on him, as well, but he was the next best guy,” Narduzzi said. “We knew Tuesday, so we worked it all week. We had an injury there. Kess (Alex Kessman) felt good with him. We’ll just keep digging there. But I doubt he’s going to have both duties next — he needs to punt. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one kid, to be a punter and also be the holder. I know Ryan Winslow did it for years, and you’d like to have a kicker be the holder because they sit over there all day on their end of the field and snap and hold and kick and all that, but we’ll have to make a change there.”
So, not all of the holding debacle can be laid at Christodoulou’s feet, but he didn’t perform all that well in his primary duty, either, with a punting average of just 33.7 yards, a long of 42 and none downed inside the 20-yard line.
“I bet you we lost the field position by 400 yards today,” Narduzzi said. “I’m shocked when I look at the stats and it says we had 300 yards of offense and they had 390. That’s like — that’s because they had a short field the entire day, and that’s a tribute to our kicking game.”
PICKETT PINCHED, PICKED
I opined coming in that Pickett had the capability to play at the same level of Penn State’s Trace McSorley. I still believe that.
But the difference between the two was night and day. Pickett looked hurried in the pocket even when he wasn’t, threw a goal-line interception when he didn’t have an open receiver, and really only looked comfortable running with the football.
The end line was as ugly as it looked: 9 for 18, 55 yards and an interception. He was sacked four times. Just four of his passes were caught by wide receivers.
“I think when you get into a passing game in this weather, you’re probably going to have a problem,” Narduzzi said. “Kenny didn’t look like himself back there in the pocket in my opinion, but it’s something we’ll have to look at, whether the receivers have their timing, were we getting off the press, whatever it may be, were the guys in position?”
The conditions were not conducive to passing. But that didn’t stop Penn State. McSorley went 14 of 30 (actually a lower completion percentage) for 145 yards (4.83 yards per attempt compared to Pickett’s 3.06). McSorely ran five times for 36 yards. Pickett scrambled 14 times for 30 yards. Statistically, that’s a beating, but it’s not the same kind of domination that showed on the scoreboard.
Part of that was due to the aforementioned field position battle. Penn State just didn’t have to go as far to score. But the other part was that Pitt’s wide receivers just couldn’t seem to get open, while at the same time Penn State was generating pressure with a four-man rush.
That’s the money combination for a defense. Too many times, Pickett had no one open and was being pressured at the same time. Throw in a few rain-related drops and it ended up looking pretty miserable.
“It certainly wasn’t good enough, and it’s certainly not just Kenny’s fault,” Narduzzi said. “Like I said, it starts with me and then it starts with Shawn Watson and it starts with Kenny and it goes right down the line, every coach on offense and every coach on defense.”
Pitt was working the running game pretty well in the first half, and Qadree Ollison had a big day. But once the score got lopsided, they needed to be able to move the ball down the field quickly, and they just weren’t able to. That’s a problem.
MILES FOR MILES
Former Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders finished with 118 yards on 16 carries. It could have been far more. He had a long touchdown catch on a wheel route called back for offensive pass interference and another long run called back for a block in the back.
Sanders was able to get good push on the inside zone and use his speed to evade tacklers at the second level. For a smaller, shiftier back, he didn’t seem affected by the conditions.
“It was there, at times,” Weaver said. “We’ve got to be more solid throughout the game. That starts at the beginning of the game.”
Even in a lopsided loss, a few Panthers stood out in positive ways. Ollison had a big day on the ground. George Aston’s lead blocking played a big part and he also had two catches.
Weaver had four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, forced a fumble and recovered two and Wirginis was all over the place as middle linebacker. He had nine tackles, a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble.
Elsewhere, Phillipie Motley’s side of the field was never targeted in pass coverage, while Damarri Mathis held his own in coverage and made a big tackle for loss in run support.
ODDS AND ENDS
RT Alex Bookser, SS Phil Campbell, CB Dane Jackson and CB Jason Pinnock all dressed and played after missing Week 1. … LB Elias Reynolds dressed but did not play. RB Todd Sibley and S Rimoni Dorsey did not dress. … OLB Seun Idowu left the game with a lower-body injury. … Freshman WR Shocky Jacques-Louis made his first start. … The attendance was announced as 68,400, a sellout to the seat and the second-largest Pitt crowd ever. … Former players Quadree Henderson and Avonte Maddox led the team out onto the field pregame. … Men’s basketball coach Jeff Capel, women’s basketball coach Lance White and baseball coach Mike Bell were among the Pitt community in attendance. … Pitt fell to 3-2 wearing blue helmets, blue jerseys and blue pants.