PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s season opener against Austin Peay last Saturday against Heinz Field was a revelation, not just because the Panthers beat the Governors, but because of the way the Panthers manhandled the FCS opponent in their season opener.
Pat Narduzzi said after that game that he wanted to prove that the 2020 version of his Pitt Panthers are a different team than the ones that have come before it.
That may end up being true, but they didn’t show it this Saturday, even with a 21-10 victory over Syracuse.
The Panthers played a sloppy, uninspired season opener against a moribund Orange team, and while the game’s outcome never seemed truly in doubt, it was the kind of two steps forward, one step back performance that have become the hallmark of Narduzzi’s Pitt teams.
“The goal was to come out here today and be 1-0,” Narduzzi said after the game. “It’s a win. It was a lot uglier than I’d like it to be. I told the team afterwards, I was just disappointed more in the penalties that we had. Just some stuff that you don’t expect to happen at all.”
Pitt ended up penalized seven times for 70 yards, turned the ball over twice — once deep in their own zone — missed three field goals, and generally played the kind of game that ends up in a loss and not a win.
“We just didn’t come out and execute,” Narduzzi said. “The great thing is you get a win and we can go coach them hard on Sunday when we watch that tape and fix a lot of things.”
In some regards, while the Panthers came into the game with one victory under their belts, the game against Austin Peay was so easily won, and the Pitt regulars played so little of it, that the game against Syracuse felt more like a season opener than the real one did.
In that regard, Pitt feels fortunate to have come away with a victory and can work on cleaning up the mistakes before facing a more formidable opponent.
“[We] beat an ACC opponent, made a lot of mistakes and still were able to win by two scores,” Narduzzi said. “I think that’s the most important thing.”
FLAG ON THE PLAY
Pitt’s plethora of penalties came in many shapes and sizes.
Offensive lineman Bryce Hargrove took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a play, defensive end Deslin Alexandre was penalized 15 yards for spinning the ball after recovering a fumble and freshman linebacker Bangally Kamara incurred a leaping foul on a punt that gave the Orange a new set of downs.
A false start wiped away big rushing gain on one play and Jake Kradel was flagged for holding after a big Kenny Pickett scramble on another.
“Championship teams don’t do those things,” Narduzzi said, while pointing out that many of those mental errors were uncharacteristic for many of his players. “They see it. They know it. I’ve got guys coming up to me saying, ‘My bad coach, I’ll never do it again.’ But that stuff can’t happen.”
Perhaps even more vexing were the number of pre-snap penalties. Pitt was flagged for illegal formation four times, once on a punt that cost the Panthers 20 yards.
“I think we had one in the opener and we continue to just not get lined up perfect,” Narduzzi said. “And we had a couple on the punt team as well where we had some misalignments or just, you know, not being on the ball or off the ball, so we just got to clean them up and again go from Week 2 to Week 3 and clean that stuff up. We should have zero pre-snap penalties. Zero.”
The problems with Pitt’s special teams were not limited to penalties. The field goal unit had a brutal game, with kicker Alex Kessman missing wide left twice from 37 and 45 yards and holder Kirk Christodoulou dropping the snap on Pitt’s other field goal attempt.
“We’ll look at the tape and just try to figure out what [Kessman] is doing wrong,” Narduzzi said. “he noise wasn’t very much out there. They’re screaming from the sideline. I guess I’ve got to bring a whole team up when we’re doing field goal period and just scream and shout, I don’t know. We just didn’t execute.”
While Narduzzi admitted that having a struggling kicker may change the way he approaches fourth-down strategy, he did not sound like a head coach that is ready to take a look at someone else that the position.
“We’ve got a lot of faith in Alex,” Narduzzi said. “Again, he started off slow last year and then just heated up. So we just got to figure out what his issue is and we got a lot of faith in him.”
Kessman holds most of Pitt’s distance kicking records, but has not always been super consistent. He converted 71% of his field goals last season after making 76.5% in 2018. He’s 0 for 3 to start 2020.
Pitt’s offensive output was reduced by the kicking game woes and a turnover in the red zone on an interception by Kenny Pickett.
Pickett’s overall numbers were fine, completing 25 of 36 for 215 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for a third, but granularly, Pitt’s offense left plays on the field.
To begin the second quarter, Pitt had a 1st and 10 at the Syracuse 26, when Hargrove committed a false start, Pickett got seven yards back on a completion to Jared Wayne, but then Pickett was sacked and Mark Whipple went conservative with a draw to A.J. Davis on 3rd and long and Kessman missed his field goal.
Toward the end of the half, Pitt had 1st and 10 at the Syracuse 26. Pickett’s swing pass to Jordan Addison lost a yard, Pickett was sacked and then flushed from the pocked on third down and could only find Addison, short of the sticks.
“They always have a good pass rush,” Narduzzi said. “They did a couple things different, which we knew they would, like everybody’s going to do. But they got great coverage. They’ve got a great secondary. That’s the strength of their defense. “
The most despairing error came in the third quarter, when Pickett threw an interception as Pitt was once again knocking on the door at the Syracuse 20.
“They were in man and the kid did a good job of coming off and making a play,” Pickett said. “I didn’t see him. I crossed him out early in the progression because of what I saw, but I’ve gotta be better there. I can’t turn it over in the red zone. So it’s something that I’ll learn from and move on.”
There were certainly bright spots, including touchdown passes to Addison and Wayne, and a late-game drive that leaned heavily on Vincent Davis to run out the clock.
MORE DOMINANCE FROM D
So with a sloppy game, with a ton of penalties, a balky kicker and an inconsistent offense, how in the world did Pitt leave Heinz Field on Saturday as two-score winners? A totally dominate defense.
Pitt’s front four hurried and harassed the Syracuse quarterbacks to the tune of seven sacks, allowed 51 yards rushing and a grand total of 171 yards of total offense.
The only two times Syracuse threatened were after Vincent Davis fumbled a lateral deep in his own territory and the Orange kicked a field goal and a blown coverage that gifted the visitors a 69-yard touchdown pass.
“I’m actually proud of us today,” safety Damar Hamlin said. “We handled a lot of situations where, bad field position or anything like that, and we just just kept it rolling.”
The Pitt defense also had two takeaways of its own, with Paris Ford diving to intercept an overthrown screen pass and Deslin Alexandre coming out of a pile to recover a fumble.
But seven sacks, two turnovers, less than 200 yards and just 10 points allowed isn’t going to be enough to satisfy this unit.
“It wasn’t as smooth as we’d like it to be,” Hamlin said. “We see there’s a lot of room for improvement. We had a mistake, giving them a touchdown. So the game could have been a lot cleaner. Me personally I know I got a lot to work on, and I know the way the mentality is with the guys, they all know that there’s there’s more to work on. It’s another game so it’s another week to get better. That’s how we look at it.
“We’re a defense that wants to be great,” added senior defensive end Rashad Weaver, who had two of the seven sacks. “We’re disappointed in the first half. They shouldn’t have scored is how we personally feel. We’ll just continue cleaning it up and we think we were pretty good today, but we’re trying to be great every weekend. Great defenses don’t make mistakes.”
If Pitt’s defense can be even better than its impressive outing on Saturday, that can make up for plenty of mistakes elsewhere.