PITTSBURGH — There’s an awful lot to unpack from Pitt’s 44-38 overtime victory over Syracuse on Saturday at Heinz Field.
The biggest takeaway is probably one that most of this column’s readers already knew: Pitt is pretty good at running the ball. The Panthers handed the ball of to senior running backs Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison a combined 41 times and they responded by gaining 299 yards on the ground for a 7.29 yards-per-carry average.
What was new? The fact that Pitt ran the ball against the Orange when every single person in the stadium seemed to know that it was coming.
After Kenny Pickett was sacked and fumbled in the fourth quarter, which set up a Syracuse field goal that gave the Orange a seven-point lead with 11:11 to play, his job was reduced to turning and handing the ball off.
The change seemed to work. On the ensuing Pitt drive, the Panthers drove 75 yards in five plays, capped off by a seven-yard Hall score. When Syracuse went ahead with a long field goal with 5:53 to play, it was again all running plays as the Panthers fought back into field goal range. Pickett took one shot at the end zone that fell incomplete before Alex Kessman tied the game and sent it to overtime.
In the extra period, it was again all running plays until Hall punched in his second score from three yards out. Of Pitt’s last 18 plays, 17 of them were either a handoff or a direct snap to a running back. It didn’t seem to matter that everyone in the stadium knew that Pitt was only going to run the ball.
“I wanted our running backs to win it for us,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “When you have two great tailbacks — there were some tough yards in there. It wasn’t just big ole holes they were plowing through. Some of those three- and four-yard gains that we were grinding it out to get ten yards. Those were hard runs where you go, God, they did it all by themselves at times. I know we were blocking, but man, it looked like it was five guys on a back running some of those runs, so I can’t wait to watch the tape.”
Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson took some flak for what appeared to be conservative play-calling down the stretch, but Narduzzi insisted that his team was going for the win, even if they ended up settling for a field goal at the end of regulation.
“I was playing to win, and I knew our best way of winning is to put the ball on the ground and do what we do best,” he said. “You know, you’re hoping to pop one of those for a touchdown. You’d rather not go into overtime if you didn’t have to, but we were just going to grind it out — we only had three time-outs, and we were just going to grind it out and go.”
The Panthers have been blocking the run pretty exceptionally all season, and that was proven when they were able to do it with the Orange keying on the run.
“Dave Borbely, our offensive line coach, it starts with that guy and the game planning part of it, just doing what we do and they did a great job of scheming up a little bit and just playing with great technique,” Narduzzi said. “Your offensive dine did some work today and they willed it themselves. They are just like, Coach, just keep running it, we got you. It’s like, okay, that’s easy.”
If anything, the biggest-picture takeaway should be that Pitt should probably be running a whole lot more than they have been. The Panthers’ 236 carries on the season is tied for 35th in FBS while their 5.2 yards per carry is 27th. Narduzzi left that as a possibility going forward.
“We are going to do what they are giving us and I don’t know if they even gave us the run today but we willed the run,” he said. “That was a tough football team to throw. It all depends on who we are playing and what we think up front and what we can do.”
WHAT’S UP WITH PICKETT?
Pickett did not have a great game statistically, finishing with just 137 yards on 11 of 20 passing, with one touchdown, one interception, a fumble lost and a contribution on another fumble when he and Shocky Jacques-Louis’ timing was off on a jet sweep.
Furthermore, it seemed that the coaching staff lost its confidence in the sophomore passer by emphasizing the run so heavily down the stretch. Narduzzi said it was more about taking advantage of what Syracuse’s defense’s weakness was, and staying away from its strength, which is quick pass-rushing defensive ends.
After all, it wasn’t necessarily Pickett’s fault when he got blasted in the mouth by blitzing linebacker Andrew Armstrong. He wasn’t getting a lot of protection from the offensive line.
“I wasn’t going to drop back and throw the ball against that front four, the fearsome foursome over there,” Narduzzi said. “One of my old linebackers at Northern Illinois [Vinson Reynolds] is their D-line coach. I think he’s doing a heck of a job with those guys. Just look at the sack numbers. I mean, they are in everybody’s backfield when you watch the tape.
“I thought Kenny played solid. It’s not like just turn it to the right and hand it off or turn to the left and hand it off. There’s a lot of checks based on the safeties that are rolling and what they are doing coverage-wise. There’s a ton of work. Kenny had a great game, and you know, that’s a good football team.”
Pickett’s play, while not spectacular, wasn’t really much better or worse than he’s played all season. His 119.0 passer rating was just a hair below his season average of 120.2. His 6.85 yards per attempt, inflated as it was by Rafael Araujo-Lopes’ catch-and-run on a bubble screen, increased his season average to 6.2.
So while Pickett was far from perfect, there was nothing he did on Saturday that should suggest anything drastic when it comes to the future. But in order for Pitt to have a balanced offense, he’s going to need to play better at some point.
Pitt’s defense hasn’t had a great 2018 season, but one of the things that’s flown a bit under the radar so far has been the lack of the kind of big plays that can flip the outcome of a game.
Saturday, they had plenty. Quintin Wirginis ripped the ball out of Eric Dungey’s hands in the first quarter and Dane Jackson picked it up for an easy touchdown to bring the game back to even after Pitt had fallen into a 14-0 hole.
Amir Watts jumped up and grabbed an interception in the second quarter that handed Pitt a free three points, even after the offense didn’t advance the ball.
Then there was little-used defensive back Therran Coleman, who made the game-sealing interception in overtime. Coleman even being on the field was something of an upset.
Before the game, Phillipie Motley, the usual starting field corner, was replaced in favor of Jason Pinnock. Damarri Mathis was then moved over to the nickel spot until he began to cramp up. Motley went back in, but missed containment on Dungey’s 21-yard scramble for a score in the third quarter.
So Narduzzi dipped down the depth chart and could Coleman, a redshirt sophomore out of Brashear that has played some at outside corner, some at safety and some at nickel, but very little at any of them.
“It’s just being patient,” Coleman said. “You’ve got to persevere. All the coaches tell me every time I get in, to make the best of it, make it an opportunity. The opportunity came and I made a play.”
“Therran was ready all year,” safety Damar Hamlin said. “He knew when his number was called, he was going to make plays. They tried him and I bet they regret it now.”
Hamlin, who led the Panthers with 13 tackles, said it was the big plays that was the difference for the Pitt defense.
“As I was watching film, I was watching, just noticing, in film from games from last year and other plays, I was just seeing the defense was just making more plays,” he said. “Pregame, I told the DBs we needed some big plays and we needed to score on defense. We did.”
DIALING IN THE NICKEL
Pitt played primarily nickel for the second straight week, starting in their 4-2-5 look and mostly sticking with it with a few adjustments. It again gave up a good number of points, but again, Narduzzi and company were pleased with the result.
“I thought our defense played lights out. We were put in some bad situations at times, at least three short fields,” he said. “And then even, you think about the turnover, Kenny gets smacked in the head, gets his head torn off pretty much … and our kids held him to a field goal. There were some major wins out there as far as our defense played lights out I thought against a good football team.”
Pitt allowed 372 yards of total offense, the Panthers second-best game pf teh season in that category, and their best game against an FBS opponent. They allowed 323 yards to Albany. Their next-best effort was 386 yards against Georgia Tech.
Hamlin thought the team played a bit more comfortably in the new scheme, having a week to make adjustments based on the film from the UCF game.
“I would say so,” he said. “Another week playing the same defense, a little bit more comfortable in it.”
KICKING IN THE CLUTCH
Pitt kicker Alex Kessman has a strong leg. That’s something that no one has ever questioned. The redshirt sophomore regularly boots his kickoffs into — or out of — the end zone, and he’s made plenty of long ones, including a 55-yarder at Georgia Tech and a Carrier Dome-record 56-yarder last season. Saturday, he set the Heinz Field record with a 55-yard kick into the open end during a driving rainstorm.
But a strong leg is not always a consistent one. Kessman made just 57.9 percent of his field goals last season, and was 1-for-2, along with a missed extra point, coming into the Syracuse game this season.
With Pitt’s offense bogging down on the final drive of the fourth quarter and time running low, Kessman had to hit what’s possibly the most pressure-packed kick possible. He needed to hit a 45-yarder, well within his range but far from a chip shot, into the open end, with little time on the clock. If he made it, the game would go to overtime. If he missed, Pitt would lose.
Kessman nailed it, and the Panthers went on to win in overtime, in large part thanks to his contributions in regulation.
“Man, Kess is amazing,” Ollison said. “That kid, he is going to be at the next level someday. … He’s only going to get better. I’m on field goal [protection], so any time No. 97 is behind me, I’m confident that it’s going in.”
The early-season hiccups this year seemed more related to the absence of holder Jake Scarton against Penn State. Kessman, who was flanked by Scarton and long snapper Cal Adomitis during his press conference, credited those two for his success this season.
“I can’t do my job without [Scarton],” Kessman said. “[Former punter Ryan] Winslow was a good holder, but Jake is getting up there. He’s incredible. I can’t do my job without him, and [Adomitis], he’s a great snapper. One of the best snappers in the country.”
It seems that Pitt’s kicker is a strength the team can lean on down the stretch.
ODDS AND ENDS
With the win, Pitt moved into sole possession of third place in the ACC Coastal, a half-game behind co-leaders Miami and Virginia Tech. … Wide receiver Taysir Mack (right foot/ankle) dressed but did not play. Defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman (right foot/ankle) did not dress and was in a walking boot. Walk-on wide receiver Michael Vardzel (left arm) was also scratched. …LB Anthony McKee (undisclosed) and S Rimoni Dorsey (right foot/ankle) dressed but did not play.