“Obviously, that’s a good football team,” he said.
Left unsaid, but just as obviously, Pitt isn’t.
It’s not that the Panthers don’t have talent. They do. Whether they have as much talent as the No. 13 Knights, well we’re never going to find out.
Because yet again, the Panthers failed to play a winning brand of football. Pitt was penalized 11 times for 125 yards and furthermore, had penalties wipe out both of the turnovers they were able to create while turning the ball over in the red zone on offense.
Pitt’s offense struggled with the speed of the UCF defense, Pitt’s defense struggled with the speed and tempo of the UCF defense and failed to contain McKenzie Milton, either on the ground or in the air.
Even Pitt’s one area of improvement — special teams — was more of a mixed bag. Rafael Araujo-Lopes took a punt back 86 yards for a score and Kirk Christodoulou finally got his punting average out of the 30s, but freshman Mychale Salahuddin took a kickoff out of the end zone and only got to the 14. While Christodoulou was better than he had been, he was still the lesser of the two punters, meaning that Pitt was fighting an uphill field position battle once again.
FLAG ON THE PLAY
But the big thing was the penalties, continuing Pitt’s string of undisciplined play this season. If not for Quintin Wirginis’ roughing the passer penalty, Damar Hamlin’s second-quarter interception would have flipped the field and set the Panthers with good field position.
The Panthers were No. 23 in the country when it came to fewest penalty yards in 2017, with an average of 41.6 yards per game. This season, they entered Saturday No. 96 in the nation with a 66.3 penalty yards per game average and eclipsed that by nearly double.
Narduzzi didn’t have an answer as to what’s changed about his team that’s caused the sudden lack of discipline.
“The last two years, we’ve been one of the least penalized football teams in the country and I think the least penalized in the ACC,” he said. “All of a sudden, we’re one of the highest. That just doesn’t calculate with me. That’s not what we teach. That’s not what we normally get. I don’t understand, I don’t have an answer for that and it bothers me. It’s the worst thing. … I don’t have an answer for it. I don’t get it.”
Like Wirginis’ penalty, Pickett’s interception was a big momentum shifter for Pitt in the first half. The Panthers had put together a long drive and were already in field goal range when Pickett dropped back on a 1st and 10, looked to his left, where Shocky Jacques-Louis was wide open in the flat after having come in motion.
But Pickett saw Araujo-Lopes streaking open down the seam and at the last second, changed his aim for No. 82. What he didn’t see what the UCF safety breaking toward Pitt’s slot receiver. Richie Grant made a running grab and took it back 25 yards for a return instead of a probably 1st-and-goal situation if Pickett had found Jacques-Louis.
“I would say I forced the interception,” he said. “I saw him come open late. I tried to make a quick enough throw to get it in there. It was too late. It’s something I can’t do.”
It was an underwhelming performance in general from Pickett, who had just 105 yards passing and negative-six yards rushing outside of Maurice Ffrench’s long touchdown pass that amounted to little more than a toss on Pickett’s part.
Narduzzi deferred when asked directly about his quarterback’s play.
“I’m not going to sit here and talk about how he played until I’ve watched the tape, but when you only put seven points on the board, there’s 11 guys out there. It isn’t one guy,” Narduzzi said. “But again, remember, he’s still a young kid. He’s going through his first year, his second road game, and there’s no substitute for experience, period.”
If Pitt is going to pull out of this nose dive, Pickett needs to play better. The physical tools are there. It’s just a matter of making the proper mental adjustments.
CHANGE FOR A NICKEL
Pitt started the game in the rarest of defensive formations: a 4-2-5 nickel with three honest-to-god cornerbacks on the field.
Of course, it’s not really a rare formation, but it’s been practically unseen from the Panthers since Narduzzi took over in 2015. Pitt used the package a bit in 2017, but it’s been completely shelved to this point in 2018.
But Pitt played it for more snaps than either its 4-3-4 base or 4-2-5 (three safety) Delta on Saturday. Of course, the Panthers still gave up 328 passing yards and four scores through the air. But the Panthers actually held UCF below its season average in yards and points, and anything with matching personnel feels like an improvement for the Panthers’ defense that had been beating its head on a wall by playing base against three- and four-wide-receiver offensive sets.
“I think it was a good switch-up,” Motley said. “We never want to give up that many points, no matter what defense we’re in, but that’s definitely something that we have to look at and we have to fit, corrections to be made, but I think it was a good switch-up. We just have to learn what we did wrong and what we did right in that package.”
The time to work the kinks out of the nickel package was probably when Pitt got torched by Albany slot receiver Dev Holmes or Penn State slot receiver KJ Hamler. But what do I know? At least Pitt played it this week. That seems like a win, even in a huge loss.
PITT CAN FIX THIS
As I said at the top, I don’t know if Pitt can beat UCF. I think they probably can. They can definitely play a lot better than they did on Saturday.
That’s what’s left for this Pitt team, because if they play like they did against Penn State and against North Carolina and against UCF: sloppy, stupid, mistake-prone and undisciplined football, they might not win another game.
If they’re able to correct those very correctable issues, the season isn’t yet lost. They are 1-1 in the ACC. But it’s going to take a lot of improvement and rapidly.
“The ACC is coming up,” Wirginis said. “That’s what’s really important, these conference games.”