PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s 2019 regular season ended with a 26-19 loss to Boston College in front of a home crowd at Heinz Field that stretched the definition of the word by the end of the game.
The official attendance on Saturday afternoon was announced as 40,889, but by the time the clock ran out on the south end zone score board, Pitt’s final, insulting loss was witnessed mostly by yellow seats.
It’s hard to blame Pitt fans for not showing up on Saturday. The end of the 2019 season served as a significant disappointment for Pitt and its faithful, even before the Panthers fumbled away a shot at eight wins in a sloppy loss to Boston College.
After suffering an season-opening loss to Virginia and a close loss at rival Penn State, Pitt lifted its sails by winning five of its next six games.
They knocked off then-No. 15 UCF with a last-second trick play, finally found a winning formula against North Carolina and had themselves back on the verge of competing for another Coastal Division title.
Pitt needed help to be the division’s first repeat champions, but two weeks ago, it seemed likely that the Panthers at least were in line for a solid bowl trip, and had an outside shot at a 10-win season, something not seen at Pitt in a decade.
Instead, the Panthers lost each of their last two games, scoring just one touchdown in the process, and will have to win a bowl game to even reach their high-water mark of eight wins under Pat Narduzzi.
It’s an extremely disappointing end to the season, and that’s a feeling that was pervasive, from the fanbase, through the coach and into the locker room.
“No question we’re frustrated,” Narduzzi said after the loss. “I don’t think we’re playing our best. We should be better than what we are right now. Again, we got a good football team. It’s not easy. I mean, BC came in, they’re hungry, trying to get a bowl game themselves. They played better than we did. We didn’t execute.”
“I feel like we underachieved this season, tremendously,” senior linebacker Saleem Brightwell said. “I feel like especially with the players we have and the staff, to be 7-5 this year, it’s a fall-off from what we should have been.”
“We should have no more than three losses,” declared senior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench. “We got so many close games that we lost. It’s the little things: Ball security, making the right throw, playing the right coverage, being in the right place at the right time. It’s just the little inches and the little details that get you a win or a loss. Unfortunately, we’ve been at the bad side. …
“7-5, we know we could have achieved way better than that. We actually all feel like we underachieved this season.”
So it’s safe to say the regular season ended on a down note, and Pitt’s parting gift for limping to the finish line will be a bowl game unlikely to inspire the audience, win or lose. A Military Bowl road game against Navy now seems to be among the best possible outcomes.
STUCK IN REVERSE
The biggest reason for that angst — and really, for most of the pitfalls of the 2019 season — has been the offensive unit of first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.
Pitt’s offense turned the ball over four times on Saturday, committed four pre-snap penalties and quarterback Kenny Pickett was sacked four times as the Panthers far too often found themselves going the wrong way.
The four turnovers gave Boston College 12 points, seven more than the Eagles needed to put away the Panthers and clinch their own bowl eligibility.
“That was the game,” Ffrench said. “Four turnovers to their none, that’s four field goals, 12 points and we lost by seven, so it could have been a totally different game if we was even in the turnover battle.”
There wasn’t a common theme in Pitt’s inability to hang onto the football, other than the themes Ffrench identified earlier: a lack of attention to detail.
Freshman wide receiver Jared Wayne, who was placed in an elevated role because of an injury that held Taysir Mack out of the game, had six catches for 100 yards, but also had a fumble and didn’t make the proper route adjustment on Pickett’s interception.
Vincent Davis and Pickett couldn’t manage a handoff for Pitt’s second turnover. A.J. Davis taking a good, old-fashioned lick in a hole was the third.
One, or maybe even two of those turnovers could have been dealt with. Four was fatal.
“Its turnovers that killed us,” Pickett said. “And penalties. There’s no excuse for any of it.”
More frustratingly, Pitt’s offense turned in its worst performances at the end of the season, a sign they’ve failed to progress throughout the year.
Pitt scored one touchdown combined in its final two games.
Against teams that will finish the season bowl eligible, Pitt’s offense scored one touchdown against Virginia, one against Penn State, four against UCF, one against Boston College and none against Miami and Virginia Tech. That’s an average of 1.2 per game.
The dust has not yet settled on the final regular season week of college football, but the Panthers entered play ranked No. 114 in the country with a scoring average of 20.2 points per game, and that figure (and ranking) will fall.
The red zone has been Pitt’s biggest bugaboo. The Panthers entered No. 104 in the country in red zone scoring, and that figure counts touchdowns (Pitt has 16 in 36 attempts) and field goals (12 in 36) equally.
“We put a lot of field goals, but not enough touchdowns once we got down there,” Ffrench said. “Six is way better than three. That can be a huge difference in a game.”
The Panthers haven’t found — and still don’t seem to have — an answer as to why their offense has been unable to execute in the most important area of the field, an issue that’s been haunting them since coming up a yard short of tying Penn State in Week 2.
“It’s a good question. We have these long drives and we get down there. We’ve got to start making big plays and scoring farther back from the red zone. We’re going 13-play drives, 11-play drives, it’s hard to continue to move down the field in that kind of fashion without big plays. We’re having big plays, but we’re not getting in the end zone.
“We’ve got to figure out what we’ve got to do to get guys in the end zone and not have to got 13 plays for 80 yards. That’s how penalties and turnovers happen. We need to be more explosive and get into the end zone.”
Pickett’s analysis of the situation seems cogent, but he, and apparently Whipple, have not yet arrived at a solution.
The experienced coordinator should be more than capable of coming up with one, given time, but the fact that it’s nearly December and Pitt still doesn’t have one doesn’t lend itself for a lot of optimism heading into 2020.
PLUSSES AND MINUSES
Pitt’s lackluster offense throughout 2019 has meant that the Panthers’ point differential finished at negative-21, despite one of the better defensive performances the team has had under Narduzzi.
That means that Pitt actually earned more wins than it ought to have based on its aggregate performance.
So while fans and the Panthers are rightfully frustrated that a nine- or 10-win season didn’t materialize, they at least ought to acknowledge that it’s a bit of an upset Pitt will be bowling at all.
THE CURSE OF EXPECTATIONS
Compared to where Pitt sat just a few weeks ago, the 7-5 finish feels like a massive underachievement. But compared to say, the beginning of the 2019 season, Pitt seems to have mostly found the mark with where people thought they’d end up.
Las Vegas figured Pitt for 6.5 wins, with the Panthers exceeding that total.
Pittsburgh Sports Now’s preseason canvas of national media returned just one response with Pitt finishing better than 7-5 compared to six that thought they’d fare worse.
At PSN, I predicted a 7-5 season and Mike Vukovcan had 8-4. If Pitt wins its bowl game, the Panthers will split our marks.
The Panthers clearly have issues that are going to carry over into bowl practice and 2020. Their offensive line never seemed to solidify into a positive unit.
Pickett’s progress under Whipple was less than hoped for. The rest of the offense seems to lack elite playmakers — not an easy problem to solve.
But those are the problems that loomed over Pitt since the end of the 2018 season. My prediction read:
“Offensively, it’s another story. Kenny Pickett and the receiver corps all return, but no one knows if that’s a good thing or a bad thing after Pitt posted one of the worst passing offenses in FBS in 2018.
“Meanwhile, the running game that was the hallmark of the 2018 team’s success has mostly graduated. A.J. Davis, Todd Sibley and company have talent, but they’ll be running behind a revamped and very inexperienced offensive line.”
Those issues were plain and clear, and not easily solved by changes in scheme.
When Narduzzi took over Pitt’s defense, it took years to get the right kinds of players and the talent level of players to make an impact on that side of the ball. Pitt had reaped the benefits of those efforts this season.
On offense, they’ve had four offensive coordinators in five seasons. Whipple does not have personnel ideal to his scheme. He might not have personnel ideal to any scheme.
With the defense, Narduzzi showed a willingness to let the unit grow into what he knew it could become. The offense will need that same patience, that same stubbornness and same dedication from Whipple and his staff.
Like Narduzzi and his defensive history, there’s no question that Whipple can run a high-level college offense. He did it at UMass, of all places.
Pitt’s lack of growth and development through the season is concerning, but only if it persists. Whipple has a month of bowl practices, a spring and a summer to continue the process of molding his unit into his vision and another recruiting class — perhaps Pitt’s best under Narduzzi — awaits.
“I definitely see progress, year-by-year,” Ffrench said, on his way out of the program. “We have to grow up and be men about it, take the blame for it, and just try to be stepping stones to being better the next play.”
Stepping stones won’t impress. Long-suffering fans and players within tight four-year windows want to see leaps and bounds. But that’s the only way Pitt is going to elevate itself out of the morass of the seven-way Coastal parity machine and become anything more: step by step.