PITTSBURGH — Pitt has a veteran team for the 2020 season, a team that didn’t lose many players from an 8-5 finish in 2019 and had many more that showed the promise of greater potential.
Experience is a great equalizer in college sports, as even under-talented but experienced teams frequently pull off upsets over teams with perhaps a higher ceiling but that are more prone to the kinds of mistakes that can cost teams games.
In Saturday’s 30-29 loss to NC State, the Panthers played like rookies. Pitt committed 13 penalties for 125 yards, almost all of them on defense, giving NC State an untold number of extra opportunities to keep drives alive.
The Panthers couldn’t convert on four tries after a 1st and goal at the 1-yard line in the third quarter and a two-point conversion attempt went through the hands of Pitt wide receiver Taysir Mack in the game’s final minutes.
More on all of that in a moment. But Pitt lost the game with its defense on the field, and it was also the defense that helped dig Pitt a 17-7 hole to start the game, with NC State scoring on each of its first three possessions.
Yes, the penalties loomed large, as Pitt’s defense suffered from many, many self-inflicted wounds. But they also didn’t even look like the same unit that terrorized three straight offenses coming into this game.
Against a far more talented unit in Louisville a week previous, the Pitt defense looked like world beaters. They came into the game with 17 sacks on the season and got just two. They entered with five interceptions and three fumble recoveries and did not earn a takeaway. After allowing an average of 121 yards passing in its first three contests, the Pitt secondary yielded 336 yards to NC State sophomore Devin Leary, eclipsing his career high by a significant margin.
How and why was Pitt’s defense so thoroughly beaten?
NC State was able to completely neutralize Pitt’s pass rush because its big wide receivers were able to win on the edge. Pitt’s scheme relies on a symbiotic relationship between the press coverage on the outside and the defensive line up front.
The corners are allowed — and expected to — play aggressively, disrupting routes and jamming receivers at the line, to take away quick passing options and give the pass rush time to get to the quarterback. Because of that, the corners know that they don’t have to hold their coverage that long, that even if they’re eventually beaten after their aggressive jam, that won’t happen until after the defensive line has flushed the passer.
The problem against the Wolfpack’s was that wide receivers Devin Carter (6-foot-4, 216 pounds), Emeka Emezie (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and tight end Cary Angeline (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) proved awfully tough to disrupt.
Particularly, Pitt’s smaller corners, playing on the opposite side of Jason Pinnock, had trouble with the size and physicality of the NC State receivers. The fact that Pitt’s corners couldn’t disrupt routes like they normally do put them in poor body position when the ball came, resulting in some long completions and too many pass interference penalties.
This wasn’t the Pitt defense of the first three weeks of 2020, it was the Pitt defense of the first three years of Narduzzi’s tenure, when teams like Syracuse and Virginia Tech beat Pitt over and over again with big receivers on fade routes.
“At times we did [have trouble], yeah,” Narduzzi said after the game. “They threw some balls up and we were in position.”
Because Pitt’s corners weren’t able to throw off NC State’s timing, Leary was able to comfortably make his throws before Pitt’s pass rushers every got close to getting home.
“He was just getting rid of the ball quick,” defensive end Patrick Jones II said.
Pitt’s corners had a hard time getting their heads around on the ball, resulting in at least two of the pass interference penalties that went against them, which Narduzzi admitted he thought were questionable calls.
Offside, Rashad Weaver (5 yards, 2nd and 6 to a 2nd and 1)
Pass interference, Damar Hamlin (15 yards, 2nd and 19 to 1st and 10)
Offside, Calijah Kancey (5 yards, 2nd and 5 to 1st and 10)
Face mask, Calijah Kancey (15 yards, 1st and 10 to 1st and 10)
Offside, Calijah Kancey (5 yards, 2nd and 7 to 2nd and 2)
Pass interference, Marquis Williams (15 yards, 1st and 10 to 1st and 10)
Offside, SirVocea Dennis (5 yards, 3rd and to 3rd and 1)
Offside, John Morgan (5 yards, 3rd and 3 to 1st and 10)
Pass interference, Marquis Williams (15 yards, 1st and 10 to 1st and 10)
Roughing the passer, SirVocea Dennis (15 yards, 3rd and 4 to 1st and 10)
Defensive holding, Brandon Hill (10 yards, 4th and 9 to 1st and 10)
That’s the list of Pitt’s penalties, just on defense, accounting for 110 yards and eight first downs. In yards from scrimmage, Pitt’s defense was NC State’s most productive player, with the 110 yards leading Emezie’s 101 as NC State’s leading man from scrimmage.
Hamlin and Weaver are two of Pitt’s most experienced defenders, most most of the yardage came when NC State attacked some of the younger Pitt defenders.
But this isn’t a new problem for Pitt. The Panthers were penalized six times for 46 yards against Louisville and seven times for 70 yards against Syracuse. Last season, the Panthers finished as the 18th-most penalized team in the country, averaging 64.4 yards against per game.
“We gave them the game,” defensive end Patrick Jones II said. “Offsides penalties. We kept having penalties we should not have had. We should have did better in practice with it. That’s something we’ve got to go in next week and just work on. We can’t have that no more.
The good news, perhaps more so than the fact that Pitt couldn’t push NC State’s big receivers around, is that penalties are almost by definition unforced errors that can be corrected. Jones was demonstrative that it won’t be an issue going forward.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “It’s something we’ve got to get fixed. It will not be there. It will not happen next week or the week after that or the week after that. It’s done. We’re gonna fix it.”
ONE BIG DROP
Drops have been a significant issue for Pitt for over a year now, as the move to Mark Whipple’s more-pass-focused offense also came with some uncomfortable exposure for some of Pitt’s pass catchers.
That has leaked into 2020, as well, with significant drops popping up in Pitt’s first two ACC games. It was not a repetitive issue for the Panthers against NC State, but it came up at perhaps the worst time.
After Kenny Pickett’s pile dive put the Panthers ahead, he found Taysir Mack in the back of the end zone for a two-point conversion that would have given the Panthers a safe, seven-point cushion. But the ball went off Mack’s hands and fell incomplete.
When Pitt’s defense couldn’t hold on the final possession, instead of tying the game, the Wolfpack won it.
“There’s going to be drops,” Narduzzi said. “Nobody is going to be perfect. I don’t know how many we had today but I didn’t sit there and go, that was the reason we lost the football game, I can tell you that.”
In the big picture, Narduzzi is correct. There were any number of plays that could have saved the Panthers the one point that was their final margin of defeat. But those two came right at the end, and they provided yet another gateway to a problem that Pitt has been working on for quite some time.
Pitt led the nation in drops in 2019 and it once again came back to hurt them on Saturday.
THE LONELIEST NUMBER
What’s that? We’re talking about things that were chronic issues for the Panthers in 2019 that have yet to be solved and loomed large in Saturday’s loss as 14-point favorites to unranked NC State?
Come on down, short yardage situations.
The source of perhaps Pitt’s most embarrassing moment of 2019, when the Panthers failed to score on three tries from the 1-yard line in what ended up a close loss at rival Penn State, came roaring back on Saturday as the Panthers tried four plays from the 1-yard line and got no points against NC State.
The four Pitt plays were a Vincent Davis inside handoff for no gain, a Daniel Carter inside handoff for no gain (his only touch of the game), a Pickett rollout pass that he threw away because he had no one open, and another Davis inside handoff, for a 2-yard loss.
It was eerily reminiscent of last season’s failure in Happy Valley and something that the Panthers spent all offseason attempting to rectify. It should be noted that some of the things Pitt did to try to fix it weren’t available to the Panthers on Saturday.
Tight end Lucas Krull, expected to be a prime red zone weapon, missed Saturday’s game with a knee injury and big wide receiver Jared Wayne, who emerged as a target late in 2019, also was held out. Carter was clearly limited, playing on just two snaps after leaving the Syracuse game with a leg injury.
But regardless of the personnel, Pitt just didn’t do enough to get the job done in the red zone.
“Heartbreaking and embarrassing,” was all Pitt center Jimmy Morrissey could bring himself to say about the play.
“There’s things that we need to do better when we get down there and we’ve focused on it more than we ever have really to be honest with you,” Narduzzi said. “We had our opportunities, and we’ve just got to finish.”
PICKETT NEARLY DID IT
Add up everything that went wrong above, and it you probably have in your head a three-score loss, and not a game that hinged on NC State scoring with less than 30 seconds left.
Pretty much the only reason that it wasn’t was the play of Pickett, who directed a Pitt aerial attack that was the only thing going for the Pitt offense and was also forced into service as the team’s leading rusher as the offensive line struggled with run blocking and Davis couldn’t find any way to escape the stacked box of the NC State defense.
So it all fell to Pickett’s shoulders and he nearly pulled off a massive comeback. As it was, he set a care high with 411 yards (amusingly breaking the record he set in that Penn State) and contributing three touchdowns through the air and two more on the ground, as he became Pitt’s de-facto short yardage back after the early third quarter failure.
Pickett was not any less disappointed in the loss because of his personal success.
“I just leave everything out there every game,” he said. “The situation and the style of game doesn’t really make a difference to me.”
But Pickett’s continued emergence as a passing threat is important, because if the running game can’t get going, there will be more games than that one put upon his shoulders.