Have you ever ridden the Thunderbolt at Kennywood? I’m sure you have. It’s one of the most popular rides at one of the region’s enduring institutions.
One of the things that makes the Thunderbolt unique is that unlike most roller coasters, it starts coming out of the gate with not a lift hill, but a drop down into a ravine, using Pittsburgh’s unique geography to create an interesting feature of the ride.
Pitt’s 2018 season began with anticipation. The offseason enthusiasm surrounding the program was probably a lot higher than it should have been given a 5-7 2017 season, but the play of quarterback Kenny Pickett down the stretch of his true freshman season that included an upset of then-No. 2 Miami gave Pitt fans the hope that better days were ahead.
“I think Pitt has found its quarterback” were the words issued by head coach Pat Narduzzi after the victory, and at the time, it would have been crazy to doubt him.
Sitting at the beginning of the 2018 season was a home date with Penn State on national television, and a chance for Pitt to show off its quarterback for the next three seasons to the entire country.
As the train pulled out of the station, the bottom fell out. Pitt was blown out by the Lions at Heinz Field. Two weeks later, they lost at North Carolina in the only win over an FBS opponent all season by the Tar Heels. The next week, they were boat-raced by UCF, 45-14. Pitt was 2-4 with one of its wins coming over FCS Albany.
Perhaps more discouraging was the play of Pickett, who went from potential program savior to potential goat. Not GOAT, but the traditional definition.
But like the roller coaster metaphor that I’m beating you over the head with, Pitt’s season turned around and began to climb. It started with an improbable, come-from-behind overtime victory over Syracuse.
A close loss at unbeaten Notre Dame did little to dampen the momentum, as Pitt climbed to a four-game winning streak that culminated with a 34-13 beat-down at Wake Forest that clinched the program’s first ACC Coastal Division title.
In that win, Pickett finally looked like the quarterback he’d shown glimpses of being, passing for 316 yards and three touchdowns while also getting the kind of pass protection that had been only fleeting.
It was an accomplishment beyond anything Pitt’s football program had earned since at least 2004, when the Panthers took advantage of a tiebreaker to represent the Big East in the Fiesta Bowl. It was Pitt’s first outright division or conference title since they first joined a conference in 1990.
The heights of that win wouldn’t remain for long. Pitt’s season came crashing down from there, starting with a disheartening but essentially meaningless loss at Miami. That was followed by another nationally televised blowout at the hands of Clemson in the ACC Championship and Monday’s brutal-to-watch Sun Bowl loss to Stanford.
As the 2018 train pulls back into the station, Pitt is essentially back where it started.
Yes, the Panthers’ divisional championship will remain as a tangible sign of success. But Pickett was more bad than good throughout 2018 and certainly cannot be seen as even a sure-fire starter for 2019, let alone the savior of the program. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson should probably shoulder at least some of the blame for his lack of development and the overall malaise of an offense that averaged 25.6 points per game — currently 93rd in the nation.
The success that Pitt did have on offense was generally done on the ground where four seniors on the offensive line and senior lead blocker George Aston led the way for senior running back Qadree Ollison and senior running back Darrin Hall to each eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, the first time in Pitt history the team had two men perform the feat.
But of the entire operation that worked Pitt’s ground game, just starting center Jimmy Morrissey will return for 2019, leaving the offense with even more question marks as it enters the third season of Watson’s tenure.
Unless of course, it doesn’t. Narduzzi deflected questions about the status of his coordinator at his postgame press conference on Monday, but the fact that they were asked shows exactly how hot the seat is in Pitt’s offensive coordinator booth.
Watson’s future will likely be decided in the next week.
Pitt’s future as a program? It’s just as unclear.
The arrow certainly isn’t pointing down after winning two more games than a year ago and clinching a championship. But it isn’t really pointed up, either, with three straight losses in unflattering fashion to end the season.
Pitt’s budget is not comparable to the top programs in college football. Its recruiting base in Western Pennsylvania has accelerated a decade-long slide. They played one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the country in 2018. There are plenty of external factors that held Pitt back.
And yet given all of that, Pitt showed in 2018 that it is capable of playing at a reasonably high level at certain times and in certain situations. But the up-and-down ride of the season also showed that the Panthers are imminently capable of underperforming when the stage is the biggest.
It’s not a ride that many seem anxious to line up for again. It’s not where Pitt fans hoped they’d be after four years of Narduzzi’s tenure. It’s certainly not what athletic director Heather Lyke had envisioned when she gave Narduzzi a seven-year extension just over a year ago.
Pitt’s schedule will lighten in 2019. The defense, which returns all but two Sun Bowl starters, has a chance to be great. The Coastal Division remains there for the taking, with Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina replacing coaches.
Will Pitt make the moves and the improvements this offseason in order to take advantage?
All I can say is, buckle up, Pitt fans and try to enjoy the ride.