In many ways, Pitt’s 38-35 loss to North Carolina felt like a big-picture loss.
The Panthers continued the macro trend of underachieving against beatable opponents that has been with the program for quite some time now as well as several micro trends.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, it became a referendum on the tenure of Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, and suffice to say, he’s not fairing very well in the early vote.
So with a big-picture loss, there will be big-picture takeaways. Let’s start at the very base level.
PITT HAS AN ATHLETE DEFICIENCY
The more talented team did not win on Saturday. There are maybe a half-dozen Tar Heels that are individually better than their depth chart comparable on the Panthers, and even that might be generous. Pitt’s offensive and defensive lines, in particular, played extremely well.
But it was pretty obvious that Pitt didn’t have a player like North Carolina’s Anthony Ratliff-Williams. The 6-foot-1 receiver did not have a huge day — he had four catches for 84 yards. But his lack of production was more about starter Nathan Elliott not being able to get him the ball than anything else.
Pitt doesn’t really have a cornerback that can cover Ratliff-Willams one-on-one and even when they are in good position, as Dane Jackson was on Ratliff-Williams’ 37-yard catch that set up North Carolina’s second score, the better athlete out-jumped and out-muscled Jackson for the ball.
“You look at Dane Jackson, he gives up a big pass,” Narduzzi said. “We know they’re going to throw it up to 17 (Ratliff-Williams). He’s right there. He has his hand under the ball. It’s great coverage. You can’t have better coverage than what he did there. … They’ve got 85 scholarships, we’ve got 85 scholarships, and sometimes there’s going to be a mismatch here or there.”
I think that’s meant as a compliment to Jackson, who did play the ball as well as he could. But that’s the issue. Jackson — who is probably Pitt’s best corner — played the ball as well as he could, and he was unable to prevent the reception. And this doesn’t come against Miami or Clemson, but North Carolina, one of the few ACC teams coming off a worse year than the Panthers.
Not only doesn’t Pitt have anyone to cover Ratliff-Williams, they don’t really have a receiver like him, either. Taysir Mack came close, making a pair of athletic grabs for 76 yards, but he made his catches on well-placed balls by Kenny Pickett that were pretty much only where he could get to them. He has not shown, at least to this point, the ability to be the same kind of physically dominant force and matchup nightmare that Ratliff-Williams can be. In fact, none of Pitt’s receivers seemed to be able to gain much separation from the North Carolina secondary.
Of course, that makes a lot of sense. Take a look at the recruiting rankings over the five classes that played on Saturday.
2014: North Carolina 30, Pitt 44
2015: North Carolina 28, Pitt 46
2016: Pitt 30, North Carolina 32
2017: North Carolina 29, Pitt 37
2018: North Carolina 20, Pitt 46
Recruiting rankings aren’t everything. Narduzzi had a ton of success at Michigan State well before he was getting top-level recruits there. But one thing the recruiting rankings are pretty good at is identifying the best athletes. It was clear that while Pitt may still have a better team, despite the Panthers’ lack of recruiting success, they did not have the better athletes.
That’s a problem that can be overcome, but it involves using scheme to maximize the skillset of the players. There’s a reason Georgia Tech runs the option. They know they don’t have the players to run a pro-style scheme.
PITT’S DEFENSIVE SCHEME STILL DOESN’T WORK
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, slot receiver Dazz Newsome (6 catches, 110 yards), running back Michael Carter (four catches, 36 yards, touchdown) and slot receiver Dyami Brown (two catches, 32 yards, touchdown) were able to take advantage of mismatches and blown assignments in Pitt’s defense.
Two weeks previous, it was Penn State slot receivers KJ Hamler (three catches, 40 yards, touchdown) and Brandon Polk (two catches, 45 yards, touchdown). The week before that, 5-foot-8 Albany slot receiver Dev Holmes had nine catches for 148 yards and a score.
If you play fantasy college football, the safest play in the planet is a slot receiver against Pitt’s defense. That’s because the Tar Heels — and most other college teams — frequently line up with three receivers and Pitt never lines up with three corners. So no matter what, a safety or a linebacker will be covering a wide receiver on every passing down.
That’s where things really start to fall apart. We’ve already established that Pitt has a talent deficiency at skill positions. When the more talented of another team’s skill players is allowed to face some of Pitt less-talented skill players, or even non-skill players, it’s a terrifying mismatch.
North Carolina’s offense very similar to the one run by Albany and Penn State. It’s practically a carbon copy of Duke’s and similar to what Syracuse runs, as well. This is an offense Pitt faces all the time, and the Panthers basically never stop it.
Last week, when facing an option team that Pitt plays once a year, the Panthers changed their base defense at times, moving to an odd front at times and standing up defensive ends like linebackers. For the most part, it worked wonderfully against Georgia Tech’s option.
This week? Back to base and Delta, where Pitt adds a safety in favor of a defensive tackle, but still rarely has a corner for each wide receiver. The nickel defense that Pitt debuted in 2017 seems to have been permanently shelved.
The result is a pass defense that almost never gets the job done. Here’s Pitt’s pass defense ranking under Narduzzi:
So yes, it has improved some after a terrifying 2016 (no where to go but up), but under offensive-minded head coach Paul Chryst and much maligned defensive coordinator Matt House, Pitt finished 42nd in 2014 and 23rd in 2013. There has been no meaningful improvement under Narduzzi.
THEY STILL DON’T STOP THE RUN
The reason Narduzzi has given over and over and over again for not adapting his scheme to the spread offenses of the ACC is that he doesn’t want to be vulnerable against the run.
While it is far easier to defend against the run in Pitt’s base 4-3 than any kind of nickel or dime, the Panthers also still largely fail at stopping the run.
Here’s Pitt rushing defense ranking under Narduzzi:
2018: 110 (somewhat skewed by playing GT and sample size)
Again, those numbers are fine, but hardly the work of a defensive guru. Using the same check as above, Chyrst and House finished No. 64 in 2014 and No. 47 in 2013. So, they’ve been slightly better on the whole under Narduzzi than his predecessor.
But maybe more than that, it’s the situations that Narduzzi’s defense seems built for that it continues to come up small. After Pitt scored its first second-half touchdown of 2018 to close to within a field goal with two timeouts in Narduzzi’s pocket and 3:05 on the clock, they made the very defensible position to kick away instead of attempting an onside kick.
North Carolina needed two first downs to put it away. Pitt didn’t even get close to stopping them. Ratliff-Williams took a direct snap for 12 yards on 3rd and 5 and then on 2nd and 8, Antonio Williams went 15 yards. Ballgame.
“That’s a big deal,” linebacker Seun Idowu. “I think it came down to that last year, as well. A similar play, if I remember.”
KENNY PICKETT NEEDS TO BE BETTER
A good part of the optimism surrounding the 2018 Panthers going into the season was the inspired play of Kenny Pickett against Virginia Tech and Miami at the end of the 2017 season.
Pickett being nearly perfect in the season opener against Albany did nothing to dispel those aspersions.
Since then, he’s looked every bit a sophomore quarterback with only a handful of starts under his belt.
Against North Carolina, he was particularly inefficient, missing many receivers on short passes. He didn’t throw an interception, but was sacked three times and caught his own batted pass for a 12-yard loss.
“I think it came down to us not really executing like we thought we could,” Pickett said. “We didn’t make the plays we need to make today. Honestly, that’s it.”
Remember in the waning days of the 2017 recruiting class, North Carolina tried to poach Pickett from Pitt. They obviously liked what they saw more than Elliott, their 2015 three-star that picked the Tar Heels over Arkansas State and Army.
I wonder if Larry Fedora is re-visiting that decision-making process after Elliott went 22 of 31 for 313 yards while Pickett went 19 of 33 for 174. I don’t think Elliott is the more talented quarterback, but he played the better game on Saturday.
NOT ALL BAD
Even in a loss as frustrating as Saturday’s, there is still a positive to be taken away. Pitt’s running game continues to be impressive.
Darrin Hall finally broke a long one and Qadree Ollison had a solid if unspectacular outing. Pickett’s contributions on the ground were positive, including a diving seven-yard touchdown.
Pitt averaged 6.3 yards per carry, out-gained Carolina by 55 yards on the ground, didn’t turn the ball over on offense, had more points off turnovers, out-possessed their opponent and scored a total of 35 points. That’s usually a recipe for victory.
“The offense did a good job,” Narduzzi said. “When you score 35 points, you’d like to win a football game.”