PITTSBURGH — Late in the second quarter, with the Panthers trailing by 18 points against No. 3 Notre Dame, the Pitt coaching staff gave up.
Pitt was in a tough situation after the Panthers had mostly managed to stick with the Irish through the first 30 minutes. Outside of a 73-yard touchdown on a 3rd and long desperation heave that paid off for the Irish, the Panthers were generally doing the thing that multi-score underdogs want to against a top-ranked opponent: hanging around.
Then, the Panthers’ defense was unable to respond to the quick change situation and yielded a touchdown after a Joey Yellen interception to put them down by more than two scores.
With that misfortune came a bit of fortune, though, in the game clock.
The Panthers got the ball back, down 21-3, at their own 25-yard line. Pitt had all three timeouts and there was 1:29 left on the clock, a perfect amount of time to drive into scoring position and at least leave the half with a field goal, if not get into the end zone, and at either rate, not have to give Notre Dame the ball back.
Pitt also was scheduled to get the ball to start the second half, so if things worked in their favor, they could possibly have scored on back-to-back possessions and brought the game back to a one-score margin for the remainder of the second half.
Instead, the coaching staff gave up. Pitt called three straight runs (they had to call three, because Vincent Davis got a first down on the first play), let the clock wind down, then called a 2-yard pass play to kill the half.
Notre Dame called timeout, forcing Pitt to at least execute the punt. They couldn’t, as Isaiah Foskey broke through the line and blocked Kirk Christodoulou’s effort. Foskey fell on the ball in the end zone and Notre Dame had a 28-3 lead.
The ball game was over.
The game wasn’t over because the Panthers are incapable of scoring 25 unanswered points (though they looked it at times on Saturday). It was over because the coaching staff quit on the players.
They admitted out loud, to the entire world, that they thought it was more likely that something bad would happen that something good would happen if they tried to drive 80 yards in 1:29 with three timeouts.
“With 1:22 [sic], I don’t feel like we were going get into a two-minute drill and do anything crazy, and then we give up a blocked punt,” Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “But with 1:22 and the backup quarterback in there, didn’t want to go slinging it around the park and see something bad happen. So we figured we needed to regroup and get in at the half and just see what we had to do.”
If you think that, why even bother to play the game?
It was a gutless decision that backfired in the worst possible way, and really, we can pretty much forget about analyzing anything that happened after that, because none of it matters.
The Pitt coaches quit with 1:29 left in the second quarter. They should have had the decency to do as Austin Peay did in the season opener and asked the Irish if they’d agree to play 10-minute quarters or with a running clock.
MORE COACHING NONSENSE
Pitt also passed on another prime chance to take advantage of its situation earlier in the game.
The Panthers had the ball at the Notre Dame 37 when they were trailing, 7-3 with 12:14 to play in the second quarter.
Facing a 4th and 7, Narduzzi decided not to go for it and attempt to continue the offensive drive. He also decided not to have Alex Kessman attempt a 55-yard field goal, even though he’s already hit from 58 this year.
Instead, he decided to punt the ball. Christodoulou’s kick went 24 yards.
When asked about the decision, Narduzzi cited the conditions as being unfavorable for Kessman, and didn’t even seem consider the idea of going for it.
“I think it was going to be a longer field goal than we wanted to,” he said. “The wind out there was swirling a little bit at that time and just didn’t feel comfortable. Thought it was better off to just pin them, not give them a short field and play defense.”
When Notre Dame got the ball back, Ian Book scrambled for 18 of the 24 yards Pitt gained by punting on the first play. Two plays later, the Irish were in the end zone, after Ben Skowronek swatted aside Marquis Williams and hauled in what became a 73-yard touchdown pass.
College football in 2020 is not ever about field position. It is far too easy for offenses to score and far too difficult for defenses to contain them. The way to win in college football is to maximize the number of points scored per offensive possession.
Pitt might not have had a good chance at converting a fourth down. Kessman has shown he’s capable of missing from any distance, let alone near the edge of his range. But those chances came with upside in the form of points. Playing for field position just doesn’t work.
Narduzzi’s lack of understanding in this realm continues to be significantly detrimental to his team’s chances of winning games, and was the thing that linked both egregious first-half coaching blunders.
There were some Pitt fans, maybe not that many altogether, but enough to be notable, that had put the blame for a lot of Pitt’s offensive struggles in the first part of this season at the feet of starting quarterback Kenny Pickett.
I hope they all now realize how badly misguided that idea was.
Without Pickett, Pitt could probably have played Notre Dame five times and not scored 45 points.
Yellen’s lack of mobility combined with Pitt’s offensive line’s inability to handle the Notre Dame rush or open any holes in the running game was a fatal combination. He was sacked once, had to throw it away blindly several other times, and made a few outright desperation heaves, at least one of which resulted in an interception.
Without a running game to speak of (Pitt’s backs finished the day with 38 yards on 15 carries), Pickett provided a threat with his legs that opposing defenses had to recognize. They couldn’t just send blitzers bombing through rushing lanes without worrying about containment. Nor could they remain focused on the typical pocket, with Pickett so easily able to shift his feet and throw from anywhere.
“I thought we would be able to throw the ball better,” Narduzzi said. “I did not think we would run the ball great on that front, which they’re a top run defense in the country, I think, you know, and that’s what it is.”
Yellen has potential as a passer, and is still a developing player, so it’s hardly fair to directly compare him to a third-year starter in Pickett, but it’s now abundantly clear that whatever the problems Pitt had before, No. 8 was not one of them.
Even when it comes to pure passing accuracy, Pickett has been far better than the youngster.
Yellen completed 10 of 27 passes on Saturday for an abysmal 37% completion rate. On the season, he’s had 44.7% of his passes hauled in. In the same offense, with the same receivers, Pickett has completed 60% of his passes this year.
“I don’t know if we had enough balls where they needed to be,” Narduzzi said. “I’m not sure how accurate we were today as quarterbacks and throwing the football. We’ll look at that. … We had a couple balls that weren’t put where they need to be put.”
Most of the rest of the things that went wrong for Pitt on Saturday have been things that have gone wrong for Pitt over and over again all season.
The receivers dropped too many passes. The defense allowed too many big plays in the passing game. The team was penalized too much.
These are issues that the players and coaches probably have to share at this point. Pitt’s receivers drop the ball too much, regardless of the skill of the quarterback. Pitt’s secondary is beaten too often 1-on-1, regardless of the scheme.
The lack of discipline shown by the repeated number of penalties should be appalling to the players and coaches alike.
But at least the players didn’t quit.
In fact, star safety Paris Ford had to be calmed down on the Panthers sideline after he was removed from the game in favor of redshirt freshman Brandon Hill with the game already out of hand in the third quarter.
There’s fight in those players. Given the penalty totals, maybe a hair too much. There’s not usually shame in losing to the No. 3 team in the country, even with a lopsided final score.
But there’s plenty of shame in not letting the team fight its hardest to win, and instead having the coaching staff hold them back.