MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The final score might have come as a surprise, as Pitt lost, 24-3 to the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday.
But Miami’s defensive dominance over the Panthers should not have.
The Hurricanes came into the game as at the No. 4 defense in total yards in the country, and backed that reputation up by bottling up Pitt’s offense. The Panthers gained just 200 yards, and only 69 of them came on the ground.
“I told you Monday that defensively, they were pretty stout,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They were good. We didn’t execute well enough offensively.”
The Panthers were never able to get into much of a rhythm. Pitt had 10 drives that went for four plays or fewer. They punted the ball 12 times.
Part of the problem was that the Panthers frequently got behind in down and distance. Miami had 14 tackles for a loss, while Pitt had four offensive penalties for 24 yards. The combination prevented Pitt from doing what it does best — leaning on the power running game.
“We just didn’t have enough plays to get things going,” Narduzzi said. “You went three and out, you could never set anything up, you got into a rhythm.”
“We had a tough time finding a rhythm today,” agreed quarterback Kenny Pickett. “Way too many penalties — I don’t know what the number was — but it was way too many. It was killing our drives, killing our progress.”
In addition to Pitt’s offensive penalties, the Panthers had another three penalties for 37 yards on special teams, hurting their starting offensive field position.
“Trying to play catch-up all game, that’s tough to do,” Pickett said. “Especially against a defense like that. That’s the most talented defense we’ve faced.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION
It seemed like Miami was able to take advantage of new left guard Bryce Hargrove’s inexperience, calling a variety of stunts and twists that put pressure on Pitt’s reformed offensive line that played its first game without starting center Jimmy Morrissey. Narduzzi admitted that not having Morrissey was a factor.
“Any time you lose your starting center, that’s started 23 games straight, there’s an impact,” Narduzzi said. “A lot of things change. It’s not easy when that happens.”
Pickett was sacked six times, and he also said that the two delay of game penalties happened because he was trying to get the protection calls down between himself and new center Connor Dintino.
“I was trying to fix protection to put us in the best opportunity, but I’ve got to see the clock,” Pickett said.
Dintino handled snapping the ball just fine, but felt like he and the rest of the line have improvements to make going forward.
“Jimmy’s not here,” Dintino said. “We moved some guys around. We’ve got to play with the guys we’ve got. We’ve got to block it up better. That’s the end of the story, pretty much.”
ONE BIG SWING
The game turned on a first-half punt return by Miami’s DeeJay Davis. After a Pitt three and out, Panthers punter Kirk Christodoulou unleashed a 50-yard bomb from his own 15 yard line. Davis had to backpedal and stumbled, putting his left arm out to steady himself, but also mimicking the motion a return man makes when calling for a fair catch.
“I thought he had a fair catch,” Narduzzi said.
But Davis immediately took off when the received the ball, got a block and started up the left side.
That’s when Miami running back Travis Homer unloaded on Pitt tight end Jim Medure with a vicious blindside block that seemed to land primarily on Medure’s jaw and drawing a flag.
Dallas continued up the sideline, evading Christodoulou for a touchdown, but referee Stuart Mullins announced that there was a targeting foul on the play (he mis-identified Homer.)
By rule, all targeting fouls are reviewed via video, and after doing so, Mullins picked up the flag, saying that not only was there no targeting, there was no personal foul at all and that Dallas’ touchdown was good
“I thought the officials on the field got it right,” Narduzzi said. “I guess I’m not the replay guy. I don’t know what he saw. I just know head and neck. I guess you’d have to ask the ACC.”
To add salt to the wound, Homer, who would have been ejected had the targeting call stood, ended up being the most important player for the Hurricanes offense as they pulled away down the stretch. He finished with 168 rushing yards on eight carries, including a backbreaking 64-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“Coming into the week, we knew he’s a hard runner and a strong guy,” Pitt linebacker Seun Idowu said. “He’s just overall a good back.”
With Pitt already having wrapped up the ACC Coastal Division with a win over Wake Forest a week previously, the Panthers didn’t have a lot on the line against the Hurricanes. It’s a classic scenario for a let-down, and Narduzzi suggested that might’ve been part of the problem.
“We tried to coach against that all week,” Narduzzi said. “A couple guys afterward in the locker room said, ‘Coach, some guys were looking past it.’ … You put the tape on, I don’t know how you look past them unless you want your tail beat in.”
But Pitt’s players told a different story.
“I don’t think there was really a big loss of focus,” Idowu said. “We’re just about the present.”
“All I can speak for is the D line. I though we were pretty focused all week,” senior defensive tackle Shane Roy said. “We did all the same things, preparation wise.”
Narduzzi, while obviously not pleased with the idea that some of his players might have been looking past the Hurricanes, said he’d prefer that explanation to the alternative.
“I’d rather that be the reason than you just flat-out didn’t execute.”
Back in Week 2 of the 2018, Christodoulou was one of the goats of Pitt’s embarrassing loss to Penn State. He fumbled a punt snap, couldn’t get down a pair of holds and generally didn’t have a great night punting in a driving rain.
But the redshirt freshman Aussie seems to have found his way by the end of his first full season. He averaged 43.3 yards per kick on his 12 punts, his longest went a field-flipping 73 yards, five were longer than 50 yards and he dropped three inside the Miami 20-yard line.
“Kirk was outstanding,” Narduzzi said. “You don’t want to punt that many times, but he was outstanding. He keeps getting better and better. He’s a weapon.”