PITTSBURGH — Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was faced with a difficult decision in the fourth quarter of what became a 16-12 loss to the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday.
Pitt had the ball on Miami’s 1-yard line and was facing a 4th and goal to go.
The Panthers’ offense had sputtered throughout most of the day and had already turned the ball over three times and had two other drives stall in the red zone. Narduzzi opted to kick it once more.
A field goal gave Pitt a 12-10 lead and put it in the hands of the defense to hold onto. A touchdown would have given Pitt a larger lead.
“Do I wish (in hindsight) we’d have gone for it on 4th and 1? Yeah,” Narduzzi said to open his postgame press conference. “But when your defense is playing as well as they are playing, you thought, shoot, let’s win with four field goals.”
It’s a decision that will certainly endure its fair share of criticism, especially after Narduzzi infamously opted to kick in a similar situation against Penn State earlier this year.
That day, though, Pitt needed a touchdown to tie the game. Here, the field goal gave them a lead, and not even a touchdown would have given them a lead that would have been safe from a late-game touchdown.
Narduzzi trusted his defense to get the stop, after it had completely shut down Miami’s offense all day. He thought that unit played well enough to win, even despite the late drive that ended in a 32-yard touchdown pass.
“I mean, our goal was 17 points,” he said. “So yeah.”
The problem was that Pitt’s offense made the defense make not one more stop, but two. After a three-and-out and a long punt — more on that later — Pitt had the ball at its own 24-yard line.
The Panthers ran three straight inside handoffs to A.J. Davis for a total of six yards and punted the ball back to Miami after taking just 1:43 off the clock.
After Pitt had driven all the way down the field using mostly the running game, Pitt’s chances to win the game ended after rushes of 1 yard, 5 yards and no gain at the goal line and 1 yard, 4 yards and 1 yard on the following possession.
“It’s heartbreaking,” center Jimmy Morrissey said. “It’s terrible. It’s embarrassing, too.”
Pitt’s running game had one of its better days statistically. V’Lique Carter, A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley combined for 151 yards on 30 carries. But Sibley suffered a serious left leg injury on the long scoring drive after averaging 13.5 yards per carry out of the Wildcat formation. Davis is the sturdiest and most sure-handed of the remaining backs, giving him the green light in those critical situations.
He took the final four rushes, getting stuffed at the goal line and plowing into the line four yards shy of a first down on the following possession.
Whether it was due to Sibley’s absence or a lack of faith in the passing game, Pitt’s offense stagnated.
“You look at the drive before that where we are running and running it all the way down to the 1-yard line,” Narduzzi said. “We had faith in our run game. We made some calls, and again, we can say it’s too conservative. It’s not too conservative if you get a first down. We needed a first down and didn’t get it done.”
NOT SO SPECIAL
Pitt’s late-game woes were exacerbated by getting dominated on field position, something that was an issue throughout the game, from the opening kickoff, when Vincent Davis was tackled at his own 17.
After Alex Kessman’s fourth field goal, Pitt’s defense got a three-and-out, forcing Miami to punt from its own 30-yard line. That punt was a rocket from Hurricanes’ Aussie Lou Hedley.
Usual Pitt punt returner Maurice Ffrench was unavailable on the play because he’d gotten something in his eye, so special teams coordinator Andre Powell sent out redshirt freshman wide receiver John Vardzel for his first career punt return attempt.
Vardzel has some of the surest hands on the team, but he didn’t get to use them. He cleared away from the return despite Hedley’s punt being easily able to be fair caught, if not returned. It landed at Pitt’s 28-yard line and rolled all the way to the Panthers’ nine, setting up Pitt’s offense in terrible field position.
“We never want the ball to roll 20 yards,” Narduzzi said. “I’m not sure what happened on there. It’s Vardzel’s first time in there to receive it. He’s got probably the surest hands we’ve got on our football team, and I’ll have to look at the tape to see why and what happened there. Not a good move.”
Even after a personal foul was called against Hedley, Pitt only started at its own 24.
After the Panthers failed to advance farther than the 30-yard line, Pitt’s Aussie lined up and duffed one out of bounds 32 yards down field, giving Miami the ball at their own 38.
On the exchange of punts, Pitt lost 16 yards, and it would have been 31, if not for Miami’s penalty. That capped a miserable day in the return game for the Panthers. They averaged one yard on three punt returns and got just 13 yards on one kickoff return.
Ffrench had what looked to be a long return in the third quarter called back due to an illegal block in the back.
HURTING IN THE RED-ZONE
“It’s hard to win when you kick four field goals.”
Narduzzi delivered that understatement after Pitt’s four field goals didn’t hold up against the Hurricanes.
And while the final failure in a goal-to-go situation was heartbreaking, all of them added up in the loss. In the second quarter, Pitt had a first and 10 at the Miami 11 and gained just four yards. In the third quarter, things stalled after a first and 10 at the Miami 17 after a second-down sack put Pitt in third and long.
Narduzzi couldn’t find a common thread to sew together Pitt’s red zone failures other than Pitt’s opponent.
“Miami is a pretty good defense,” he said. “They’re ranked in the top 25, I think, in just about every category. We rushed for 176 yards. Just making plays, finishing it up. We’ll watch the tape. It’s hard to tell. The disappointing one is when you get down to the 7-yard line and you go three plays and get six yards and don’t get in.”
But in the red zone, and frankly all over the field, Pitt’s passing offense suffered from poor decisions by Pickett and at least a half-dozen flat-out drops that sapped confidence in the unit’s ability to convert through the air.
“I don’t know how many drops,” Narduzzi said. “You guys probably counted them up and tallied them, but we just didn’t make enough plays. Again, and the run game was going, so we’re going to run the football.”
TOO BIG OF A WHOLE
Pitt’s 2019 success has been built on a dynamic defense and an offense that has done enough — particularly in the first half of games — to put the team over the edge. That paradigm has led to several games where the offense jumped out to a big lead, only to have it barely hold up in the end.
But on Saturday, the opposite happened. Pitt’s offense uncharacteristically dug a big hole, handing Miami 10 points on two Pickett interceptions, and completely changing the complexion of the rest of the game.
It’s a scary trend, as Pickett has now thrown six interceptions this season compared to just eight touchdowns, for a 115.3 passer rating that is 10th in the ACC amongst starting quarterbacks.
“I don’t know [what happened],” Narduzzi said. “It happened so fast out there. I could say that from sitting on the sideline, but I’m not sitting in the pocket being pressured. It looked like a couple overthrows, but I’d have to look at the tape. Maybe it’s a route, maybe it’s pressure. I don’t know what it is.
“But they were … they were fatal.”