Last Thursday, as Pitt was coming into its game against Miami, head coach Pat Narduzzi said the Panthers were “pretty healthy.”
That was obviously a lie, as starting quarterback Kenny Pickett did not travel with the team to Miami, Pitt’s projected starting tight end Grant Carrigan and reserve defensive end Nate Temple made three Panthers that will miss the rest of the season with injuries, and close to a dozen players from Pitt’s two-deep roster either didn’t play or played at less than 100% against the Hurricanes.
As the injuries have piled up for Pitt, Narduzzi’s obfuscation of them has gotten more absurd. It’s hardly any surprise that Pitt has struggled to run the ball without two of its top four tight ends, two or maybe three injured running backs and two banged-up offensive linemen. It’s not a shock that with one starting linebacker out and another playing at well below full strength that inexperienced backups have made errors in coverage. It should not be surprising that a team with so many injuries and fill-in players has also been so heavily penalized.
Pitt was supposed to have a senior-laden team in 2020, especially on defense, but injuries have robbed them of senior cornerback Damarri Mathis, defensive tackle Keyshon Camp and linebacker Cam Bright for most or all of the season.
Their replacements have not always been up to snuff. At cornerback, Marquis Williams and A.J. Woods’ pass interference penalties have been a significant contributor to Pitt’s overall issues with penalties. At defensive tackle, youngster Calijah Kancey has impressed, but was also the most frequent target of NC State’s aggressive pre-snap cadence.
At linebacker, SirVocea Dennis has also showed promise, but he and fellow backup Chase Pine combined to let two wide-open passes for touchdowns go through the heart of Pitt’s defense against Miami.
“Voss being a new starter, saw some things really I don’t think we practiced enough or emphasized enough,” Narduzzi said on Monday after the loss. “That’s on us as coaches when things like that happen. …
“They really ran four of them. You guys don’t notice that we stopped one of them. Cam Bright did a nice job when he was in there. Cam wasn’t in there enough because he’s still a little bit banged up. Hopefully, 100% this week. He does it the way you’re supposed to, a veteran guy. Voss is maybe one of the smartest linebackers we have. I know that will never happen to him again.”
Well, it had better be. Though the play that beat the Panthers twice is an Air Raid concept, it’s not hard for any team to adopt it. If Pitt can’t stop it from being a long touchdown with more regularity, they’re going to see it again.
“Well, I would think anybody will do it until we stop it, let’s put it frankly,” defensive coordinator Randy Bates said. “We stopped it and then different guys in there in different situations, and we didn’t and it was disappointing, but it’s something you got to work on. With the aggressiveness of the defense guys are one-on-one many times and you have to be disciplined, and that is a critical factor in our defense.”
And so it goes for a defensive staff that has spent most of the last month chasing its tail. Pass interference and offsides penalties sunk them against NC State, but those have largely been cleaned up. Decision-making in Pitt’s zone defense hurt them against Boston College, but that was better against Miami. Now there’s a new problem to fix.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way for Pitt’s defense, which was supposed to be one of the most dominant units in the country, and to be fair, the Panthers have still been good.
They’re 20th out 77 playing teams in scoring defense at 24.4 points per game and 11th in total defense at 302.2 yards per game. That unit is not necessarily the reason they’ve lost three games. But it was also supposed to be the strength of the team that a still-developing offense could lean on to win games, even when the offense hasn’t been at its best, and it hasn’t quite been that, either.
The lack of availability of some of Pitt’s best defenders is a primary reason for that drop off. While Narduzzi has largely downplayed that impact, Bates met it head on.
“We’re probably far less of a starting defense than we were maybe three months ago with bodies, and some of those guys are still learning on the job,” He said. “The critical thing is to learn from your mistakes and not let it happen again.”