STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Pitt entered Saturday’s game against Penn State as 17-point underdogs.
If you’re not a big gambling aficionado, that’s a pretty heavy line. The experts not only did not expect Pitt to beat Penn State, they didn’t think it would even be close.
Pitt’s defense was exceptional, and the offense did enough on one long drive in the second quarter to go into the half tied at 10. Even in the second half, Penn State was only able to strike paydirt one more time.
Narduzzi’s late-game decision to kick a field goal instead of going for a touchdown on 4th and 1 drew plenty of ire from the fanbase, and his nonsensical explanation didn’t help much.
But that wasn’t the only time that Narduzzi balked at making the kind of aggressive decision that a big underdog needs to make to pull of an upset like this.
In the first quarter, Pitt had a 4th and 7 at Penn State’s 37-yard line. That’s a 55-yard field goal. Alex Kessman has made multiple field goals over 50 yards in his Pitt career, including a 55-yard field goal at notoriously tough Heinz Field last year.
Penn State kicker Jordan Stout hit a 57-yarder into the same end zone later in the half.
But Narduzzi first called a timeout and then elected to play it conservatively and punted. Kirk Christodoulou’s punt was downed by Tre Tipton at the 2-yard line, which kept Penn State bottled up for all of three plays.
Journey Brown raced for 85 yards on third down and three plays later, Devyn Ford scored Penn State’s first touchdown.
On the first drive of the fourth quarter, with the Panthers trailing 17-10, Pitt had the ball at Penn State’s 48-yard-line and had a 4th and 2. Again, Narduzzi decided to punt the ball away.
On the fateful drive that ended at the goal line, Pitt had an earlier fourth down, a 4th and 1 on their own 43 with 7:38 to play. Narduzzi sent the punt team out before burning another time out and then settling on going for it, with Kenny Pickett hitting Nakia Griffin-Stewart for a big gain.
Three times, Narduzzi played things conservatively. Two more times, he wasted a timeout making his decision.
In a one-score game, a lot of things end up making a big difference. But there’s no question that Pitt’s passive decision-making and lack of aggression cost them.
That’s not how an underdog pulls off an upset.
PICKETT CAN DO IT
Pitt’s quarterback didn’t play a perfect game, but he played well enough to beat the No. 13 team in the country on the road.
That’s something that Pickett hasn’t always shown in his season-plus as Pitt’s starter. But he finally looked comfortable in Mark Whipple’s scheme and led Pitt to several long drives where he was the primary catalyst for the offense.
“I don’t know if Kenny can play any better, guys,” Narduzzi said after the game. “That guy played his tail off. He made some throws you guys had not seen him make before. He’s throwing it on time. He’s throwing in rhythm. Kenny did a heck of a job.”
The best drive for the offense probably was one in the second quarter where they just came away with a field goal. But it was 18 plays over 85 yards and took 9:20 off the clock. Pickett was the star, completing 12 of 13 and scrambling three times.
“I think we showed all game what we’re capable of,” Pickett said. “That was a really good drive. … We kept our defense off the field and let them rest up.”
He finished 35 of 51 for 372 yards — all career highs. Pickett thinks the passing offense has more room to grow, as well, particularly when it comes to splash plays.
“I think we need to make more explosive plays in the short passing game,” he said. “We’ve got guys in space, so let’s go do something with it and put it in the end zone.”
THE D IS FOR REAL
Penn State started its 2019 season by scoring 79 points against Idaho and 45 against Buffalo. The 17 points against the Panthers is tied for the third-fewest points scored by the Nittany Lions since 2016 and is their lowest point total in a win under James Franklin. It was the lowest point total in a home win since 2011.
“I though they had a good plan,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Narduzzi as a defensive guy. They always play really tough.
From the very beginning of the game, Pitt’s pass rushers harried Lions quarterback Sean Clifford with pressure, and were frequently able to accomplish it while rushing just four men.
“We know what we’ve got in our room,” said defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman — who Franklin called a “problem.” “We’ve got to keep getting better and keep applying pressure on the gas pedal.”
Penn State running back Journey Brown did rush for over 100 yards, but 85 of that came on one play, when Pitt missed several tackles. For most of the rest of the day, the Lions weren’t able to use the running game to move the chains and take pressure off Clifford.
RUNNING WOES CONTINUE
Pitt’s running back depth chart featured three co-starters this week in junior A.J. Davis, redshirt junior Todd Sibley and freshman Vincent Davis. Sophomore V’Lique Carter also got into the mix.
None of them had much success.
Pitt finished with 24 yards rushing on 25 carries. Sixteen of those yards came from Pickett and Shocky Jacques-Louis. The actual backs had 10 yards on 14 carries.
They didn’t have much room to run, with Pitt’s offensive line unable to make many holes, but any way you stack it up, that’s not good enough.
“Give them credit,” Narduzzi said. “We knew the front seven was pretty good and that’s what you do. We didn’t run the ball very effectively early in the game. But we tried to establish it first and try to run the football.”
Pitt was very effective running the ball in 2018. But both backs and four offensive linemen moved on. They’ll need to find a way forward in that phase of the game to take some of the pressure off Pickett.
NOT THE END OF THE ROAD
Pitt’s loss will sting, particularly because of the close nature of the game and the historic rivalry between the teams coming to an end.
But it’s important to note that Pitt’s loss won’t deter the Panthers from their ultimate goals. Like last year, the loss to the Lions won’t stop Pitt from winning the Coastal Division.
That’s the real prize at the end of Pitt’s season, and they’re just 0-1 in what looks to again be a wide-open division. If they play more games like their effort against the No. 13 Lions, they should do just fine in the ACC.
“It’s a non-conference game,” Narduzzi said. “All our goals are still ahead of us. We’ve got a resilient football team that I love. We’ll be fine. We’ll be just fine.”
Even as a young player, that was a message that Twyman was able to receive, if not totally digest in the moments following a tough loss to a rival.
“It takes a little while to digest but I still understand the big picture,” Twyman said. “The big picture is going to the ACC Championship … so we’ve just got to keep working.”