Pitt lost for the third straight game on Saturday, but unlike the ones that came before it, the game against the Hurricanes was not one the Panthers were expected to win.
In fact, even if Pitt had cleaned up one-point losses to Boston College and NC State, they probably would have still been slight underdogs entering Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday.
That doesn’t make the loss any more frustrating for the Pitt players or the Pitt faithful, and probably the opposite, as the Panthers let a critical opportunity to help right the ship after unexpected losses slip away.
But it’s a different kind of postmortem after losing a game that Pitt was expected to lose — even before it was announced that starting quarterback Kenny Pickett did not travel with the team to South Florida. Given the circumstances, Pitt’s 12-point loss feels better than it should have been, at least to a neutral observer.
Less so to senior linebacker Phil Campbell III.
“I think we had a lot of hopes for this season,” Campbell said. “We never would have expected to lose three games in a row. I’m still in shock about it. This is a tough one to swallow.”
But that frustration is probably borne equally out of how Pitt lost than it is the sheer fact the Panthers are 3-3 after a 3-0 start.
Penalties have been an issue for the Panthers all season, and that trend continued on Saturday. The Panthers were penalized 10 times for 89 yards, drawing double the number of flags that the Hurricanes did.
And they had all kinds: a kick-catch interference penalty, an illegal block, a false start, a delay of game, defensive pass interference, a face mask, defensive holding, offside, offensive holding, illegal substitution, and twice lined up in an illegal formation on special teams, though both were declined.
“That’s kind of been the story of our season so far,” Campbell said. “We stopped them and we shoot ourselves in the foot with a penalty and it ends up in a score. It’s happened several games, not just this game. … We have to be better with that.”
After the 89-yard performance against the Canes, the Panthers have now averaged 75.2 penalty yards per game this season, which is 17th-most amongst FBS schools.
RUNNING FREE IN THE DEFENSE
Pitt’s experienced defense is supposed to be on the strengths of the team, and by most traditional metrics, they are.
The Panthers are 11th in yards per game allowed and 22nd in scoring defense. Their rushing defense, in particular, has been outstanding, with 73.6 rushing yards against No. 3 in the nation.
But their pass defense has been slightly more leaky. They’re 29th with 228.6 passing yards against per game, and have had a startling tendency to give up some big plays at inopportune times.
Pat Narduzzi’s aggressive defense largely eschews safety help in exchange for being better against the run and more likely to get to the passer. If Pitt’s cornerbacks had been victimized in 1-on-1 battles with speedy Miami receivers, that might have been expected.
But instead, it was three completely missed assignments by the Pitt defense that allowed Miami scores of 35, 36 and 45 yards, giving the Hurricanes 21 of their 31 points and 116 of their 222 passing yards in the blink of an eye.
Two of them, to running back Cam’Ron Harris and tight end Will Mallory, looked nearly identical, with four receivers split wide, two to each sideline, and Pitt’s linebackers leaving a man all alone in the middle of the defense.
“It was a form of the same play with two different formations and two different ways of getting it,” Narduzzi explained. “So they obviously did good job. The second one was kind of an iso. The tight end Mallory kind of came across and up through it. He shouldn’t ever came up through the hole. If you’re getting sucked up in on the run, then we got to at least hit him. He can’t through to the line of scrimmage free.”
NOWHERE TO RUN
Pitt’s running game has been a struggle all season, but against a talented Miami defensive front, the Panthers had nowhere to run at all.
Pitt’s backs carried the ball a combined 20 times for 44 yards, an abysmal 2.2 yards per carry. Usual starter Vincent Davis went literally nowhere, gaining zero yards on his nine carries.
Todd Sibley, Jr. started the game at tailback, and as a bigger, stronger back, at least seemed capable of bulling his way for a few yards even when holes did not exist. But Sibley got just four carries over the course of the game. He gained 23 yards on those attempts, but his lack of involvement was a head-scratcher, even to Narduzzi.
“I don’t make calls on offense and Sib did end up having some nice rushes early,” he said. “I’m not sure why, what but, we’re trying to rotate those guys back there and see who can go. I was happy with the way Todd did take those four carries and we’ll look at the tape and see why, what, but maybe he should have gotten some more carries.”
YELLEN SHOWS PROMISE
After how much Pickett had contributed to Pitt’s offense through five games, it was easy to expect disaster without him in there against the Hurricanes.
Redshirt freshman Joey Yellen performed admirably in his first start, though, finishing with 277 yards on 22 of 46 passing, with one touchdown.
“Overall, you really didn’t know what to expect,” Narduzzi said. “First start as a Pitt quarterback. I thought he played solid. I thought he put balls in people’s hands to make plays, and we don’t we don’t make plays at times. We’ve got to help him out and again, we’ve got to help him out with the run game.”
Yellen was harder on himself. When asked about his performance, he said it “wasn’t good enough to win.”
But on the whole, Yellen came away with the knowledge that Pitt wasn’t that far off from beating the No. 13 team in the country, if not for a few of the correctable mistakes above, or with a couple more plays on offense.
For the losers, that’s the frustrating part. But for a team that will also face a pair of top-five foes in Notre Dame and Clemson this season, it also provides hope that the Panthers can play with anybody if they clean up their own mistakes.
“We fought with them,” Yellen said. “They’re a really good team. … I got no excuses. We’ve got to just hop right back on the saddle.”