PITTSBURGH — When a team loses a non-conference game, especially one to a lesser opponent, there are a usual group of platitudes that emerge from the postgame press conference.
It usually goes something like, “one loss doesn’t define us” or “all of our goals are still in front of us” or “it’s a long season.”
On Saturday, it was head coach Pat Narduzzi that delivered the line:
“We’ll move forward. It’s one game. It’s not an ACC game. All of our goals are still ahead of us. It’s one ballgame.”
And those sentiments are usually true. They technically are for Pitt in this case after an embarrassing 44-41 loss to Western Michigan as more than two-touchdown favorites.
The Panthers weren’t realistically headed to the College Football Playoff, so it’s not like their end-of-season standing will be dramatically impacted by the loss to the lowly Broncos.
Pitt can still go out and be extremely competitive in a Coastal Division that doesn’t look any stronger with Virginia Tech losing to West Virginia and Miami losing to Michigan State to each fall to 1-2.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Pitt shakes off this loss, as the Panthers have done multiple times under Narduzzi, and goes out and has an average or above average season.
Another 8-win season, which would be the fourth in seven years under Narduzzi, is certainly still within reach.
There have been just 11 of those since Jackie Sherrill left Pitt, and Narduzzi has led three of them. His in-conference winning percentage is the best of any Pitt coach since the Panthers joined the Big East in 1991.
All of that misses the point.
Pitt football is a program that lacks support and enthusiasm. The announced attendance of just over 40,000 for the second home game of the season — already low compared to most Power Five teams — seemed comically inflated when compared to the actual way the stadium looked.
Ben Sauls kickoff goes into the end zone.
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) September 18, 2021
And that was with the game not even being broadcast on television locally, with AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh choosing not to sign on as an ACC regional sports network this season — another sign of the program’s importance around the city.
Pitt has not been good — truly good — since the early 1980s. No one rational was expecting Narduzzi and company to come in and work miracles, leading Pitt to multiple ACC titles and national prominence.
What they wanted, and what Pitt has lacked, was consistency and stability.
Narduzzi has brought the latter. Through seven years, he’s established an enviable team culture — one that just provided the winning factor in his team beating Tennessee — developed a strong group of assistant coaches while sticking with the program despite other attractive offers.
The consistency is where Pitt and Narduzzi have fallen short.
In 2020, Pitt started 3-0 and lost at home as 14-point favorites to NC State. In 2019, they lost as 9.5-point favorites at home to Boston College. In 2018, Pitt lost as favorites on the road against a North Carolina team that finished 2-9.
The Panthers under Narduzzi have not been able to get out of their own way. They have not been able to win the games they’re supposed to win. And that — more than losses to clearly higher-tier programs or tough battles in even ACC matchups — is what causes fan apathy.
Those losses are the reason that Heinz Field was largely empty for a gorgeous September afternoon for football.
After the loss to Western Michigan, how many more will stay away? Can you blame them? I can’t.
This season, with a still-strong defensive front and a fifth-year starting quarterback, was Narduzzi’s opportunity to finally put together a complete, full-season performance.
Despite the platitudes, three games in, it’s already a failure, and almost nothing that can follow can change that.