BLACKSBURG, Va. – Jimmy Morrissey summed up Pitt’s performance at Virginia Tech on Saturday simply and perfectly after the game.
“The offense didn’t get in a rhythm to make plays and score,” the redshirt junior center said. “We just came out flat. Their defense came out ready to play. We didn’t answer the call, so, they outplayed us.”
It’s difficult to describe Pitt’s defeat at Lane Stadium built better than that. The Panthers’ offensive attack was as sharp as a cue ball and quarterback Kenny Pickett and his receivers were far from being on the same page. The 11 players on Pitt’s offense often looked lost and bewildered, like they were trying to navigate an ice rink blindfolded.
And like gnats swarming on barbecued meat, Virginia Tech’s defense just kept coming at Pitt, frustrating the Panthers, annoying them and eventually dominating them.
There was nothing innovative or successful about Pitt’s offense Saturday, and so, the Panthers scored zero points in a critical game. On Virginia Tech’s senior day – and the final home game for longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster – the Hokies won 28-0 in front of an announced crowd of 55,936 fans.
It was the first time Pitt had been kept completely off the scoreboard since their 2008 Sun Bowl loss to Oregon State. LeSean McCoy was a sophomore on that team, for further context on how long ago that was. It was also the first time Pitt was shutout in a regular season game since 1996.
“It was a playoff game today, basically,” Foster said. “To play the way we did, we didn’t play tight, we played with confidence, we executed, we made plays, and to see that from a coaching perspective is very gratifying.”
Indeed, Bud. Virginia Tech played the way Pitt should’ve. Both teams had something on the line.
Which is why Pitt’s loss on Saturday is even more mind-boggling when it’s considered what was at stake. In arguably the most important game of Pat Narduzzi’s head coaching career, his offense played arguably its worst game. With a victory, Pitt would’ve been in a position to capture its second straight ACC Coastal Division title next week. Pitt could have ended the regular season with nine wins, and with Clemson and its bowl opponent still left on its slate, Pitt could have won 10 games for the first time since 2009.
But that’s all those hypotheticals are now: would have’s, could have’s and should have’s.
“It was just us. We just didn’t execute our jobs really. You look a lot of the series’; we just didn’t make plays,” Morrissey said. “It’s extremely frustrating… It was just a bad day for our offense as a whole.”
Offense not on same page
Pickett was short and blunt in his post-game interview. He didn’t think Virginia Tech’s pass rush was a problem. He conceded that the weather “could’ve been” a factor in his performance, but then said it “wasn’t very hard” for him to grip the ball and that he was throwing fine. For what it’s worth, it was below 38 degrees and it rained all night.
When asked about what the atmosphere in the locker room was like after the defeat, he said: “How would you expect the post-game locker room like that to be? That should be an easy question to answer.”
Pickett was clearly disappointed and miffed by the loss. He completed just 10-of-26 passes for 103 yards. He took three sacks and fumbled once, that loose ball resulting in an easy scoop-and-score for the Hokies. And Pickett didn’t get the chance to finish the game, as he was relieved by redshirt freshman Nick Patti with about six minutes to play and the game out of reach.
But while he didn’t play well, the loss is not entirely his to shoulder.
“It was a missed block here, dropped ball here, bad throw. It was just all the same,” Morrisey said.
While Pickett made some poor decisions, his offensive line could have given him more time. And while some of his throws were off the mark, there were about six to nine instances where he hit his receivers right in the hands and they couldn’t hang on to the ball. Perhaps he didn’t have a problem gripping the ball, but his targets surely did.
“We had everything we wanted. We just weren’t making the plays that were there. We’ll see it on film, but it was pretty clear to tell when we were out there playing,” Pickett said. “We just didn’t show up. The defense played well, we just didn’t show up offensively.”
Pickett connected with his receivers just a handful of times for decent gains. He hit Jared Wayne for a 31-yard pick-up, then gained 19 yards on a throw to Taysir Mack, and picked up 14 yards on a strike to Aaron Matthews. The problem was, Pitt’s offense couldn’t string those plays together. They didn’t make plays that consistently scared Virginia Tech’s defense.
Pitt made just one trip to the red-zone all night and they were stopped on 4th-and-2 on the Hokies’ 10-yard-line. Of Pitt’s 13 drives, 10 of them gained less than 25 yards. The Panthers offense wasn’t just bad and ineffective, it was abysmal.
The Panthers’ passing attack wasn’t helped by its run game either. Pitt ran 27 times for 60 yards, a clip of just 2.2 yards per-carry.
In all, the Hokies out-gained Pitt in offensive yards 263-177, the first time an opponent had out-gained the Panthers all season. Pitt posted season-lows in first downs (eight) and total yards.
Defense made mistakes too
While Pickett and Morrissey were more than willing to let the offense take the blame for the loss, the defense could have played a bit better too.
Virginia Tech’s first touchdown of the day was set up by a home run ball that could have been stopped. Just before he was about to get sacked, Hokies’ quarterback Hendon Hooker reared back and fired a strike at Tayvion Robinson, who eluded four tackles and sprinted for 71 yards before he was brought down on the goal-line. The Hokies punched it in, then scored on Pickett’s fumble, and within a span of two minutes had a 14-point lead in the first quarter.
“It was just bad plays throughout the game,” linebacker Kylan Johnson said. “All the bad mistakes and stuff, it just is what it is. We were upset, but it’s part of the game.”
Johnson totaled four tackles, one of which was for a loss – a sack assist – but for the most part, Pitt struggled to get its hands on Hooker. Pitt sacked the redshirt sophomore three times and registered an additional QB hit, but never forced him into a turnover or costly error. Hooker completed 10-of-13 passes for 153 yards and two scores, and rushed for 27 yards.
Virginia Tech went ahead 21-0 just before halftime when Hooker threw a pass to the back corner of the end-zone. In a one-on-one battle, Hokies’ wideout Tre Turner beat Pitt defensive back Jason Pinnock on a fade route.
“He was a good player,” Johnson said of Hooker. “We’ve faced mobile quarterbacks throughout the season. I feel like it’s tough on any defense when you play a mobile quarterback. That’s just one extra thing you got to worry about.”
Additionally, the defense will be one starter weaker for the first half of next week’s game as redshirt sophomore safety Paris Ford picked up his second targeting foul of the year and was ejected in the fourth quarter.
On a good note, Pitt now has 48 sacks on the season, which leads the nation and is the most the unit has tallied in a single year since 1987. Patrick Jones got his eighth sack of the year and Cam Bright had a career-high three tackles-for-loss.
Pitt hopes to finish strong
A second straight Coastal Division title is nothing more than a dream now for Pitt, but the Panthers do have games left on the schedule that come with some stakes. A win over Boston College at home next weekend would send the Panthers seniors out on a high note at Heinz Field and it would improve Pitt’s chances at appearing in a quality bowl game.
And a win in that bowl game would be the first bowl victory of the Narduzzi era and give Pitt its most wins in a single season – nine – since that 10-win 2009 campaign.
“We’ve moved onto Boston College,” Johnson said. “We’re disappointed we lost, but we can’t stay mad at that. We still got two games left and we want to finish strong. We can’t worry about this loss.”