PITTSBURGH — How does that old saying go? Football is a game of inches?
It rang true Saturday night at Acrisure Stadium as a few inches — a few different times — held Pitt from a win that honestly wasn’t earned but was right there to be taken. But as it did all afternoon and into the night, Pitt fell just a few inches short of grabbing that elusive win.
“It was a heck of a football game versus a good football team,” Pat Narduzzi said at the podium following the game. “I think when it comes down to it, I told our guys, it’s a game of inches, and there were inches all over the place that we needed to get.”
Pitt lost Kedon Slovis to an undisclosed injury, and he didn’t return for the second half. Nick Patti entered the game cold, picked up an undisclosed injury of his own and played through the pain. Owen Drexel, SirVocea Dennis, Devin Danielson and Tyler Bentley all picked up knocks throughout the game, and it was a battle so fierce that it couldn’t be contained to just 60 minutes of football.
A tough stretch of overtime may have sealed the deal for Pitt at the very end, falling to No. 24 Tennessee 34-27 at Acrisure Stadium, but throughout the highs and lows, Narduzzi was proud of the progress that his team achieved against the Volunteers.
“I really thought our players played their tail off,” Narduzzi said. “That’s what I told them. You talk about a football game. There was back-and-forths. We made improvements from Week 1 to Week 2, without a question. Win, lose, doesn’t matter. I knew that would be the factor. Our kids played hard. Made some plays and didn’t make some plays.”
But no matter how valiantly or how tough Pitt hung in against a good Tennessee squad, moral victories don’t mean much. They don’t really mean anything, and as much as Pitt left their all out on the field, a good deal of points were left out on the field too.
How Many Points Left on the Field?
When Jared Wayne hauled in a 4-yard touchdown toss from Nick Patti with just 2:23 left in the fourth quarter, Pitt could’ve trusted a banged-up offense to go for a two-point conversion. It would’ve been risky, and Narduzzi said he didn’t really think about it — it wasn’t a hard decision not to at least.
“You want to take it to overtime,” Narduzzi said. “You don’t want to lose the game right there.”
That’s fair. Safe, but fair. And when Pitt’s defense clamped down on Hendon Hooker and the Tennessee offense on the next possession, forcing Tennessee to punt on fourth down with just a few ticks over 50 seconds left, Narduzzi decided to not take his final timeout and let the clock bleed away.
Tennessee punted with about 20 seconds left, and with the ball on the Pitt 15-yard line, he decided to test his luck in overtime. It didn’t result in a win. It wasn’t because of a two-point conversion attempt or a decision not to trust the offense with under a minute remaining. It was because Pitt left a lot of points on the football.
Let’s start from the beginning.
With Pitt leading Tennessee 10-0, the offense humming along as well as it had all season, Slovis’s off-platform throw on 3rd-and-10 from the Volunteers’ 21-yard line bounces off of Bub Means’ hands and into the waiting arms of Vols’ safety Trevon Flowers for a touchback. That’s at least three points off the board — and a dropped touchdown pass. Tennessee would score on its ensuing offensive possession.
With Pitt leading 17-14 a few possessions later, Pitt faced a 4th-and-3 from the Tennessee 27-yard line. Slovis was clobbered in the backfield by an unblocked defender off the edge before he could even make a read. That’s three points that could’ve been on the board. Tennessee would knock a 37-yard field goal through on its ensuing offensive possession.
At the end of the second quarter, after an inspired defensive effort to get the ball back 21 seconds the halftime whistle, Slovis was hauled down and stripped off the football on a 1st-and-10 from the Pitt 37-yard line. It seemed Pitt avoided disaster when M.J. Devonshire picked off Hooker in the end zone on the next snap, but Devonshire’s toe — less than an inch of his toe — was deemed out of bounds. The Vols would knock another field goal through the uprights to end the half.
With Patti now in the game for Slovis to open the second half, Pitt drove the opening kickoff back to the Vols’ 28-yard line, and instead of going for a 4th-and-3 this time around, Ben Sauls’ 46-yard field goal sailed wide. That’s more three points not on the board.
P.J. O’Brien’s blocked punt in the third quarter featured a number of points being left off the board. O’Brien blocked a punt from Tennessee’s Paxton Brooks, but as he scrambled for the football that bounced back toward the end zone, he sort of collided with Solomon DeShields, stepping out of bounds around the Vols’ 19-yard line — a near miss in breaking a return touchdown. And, of course, a Sauls’ 36 yarder sailed wide once again. No touchdown and no field goal.
“We missed two field goals,” Narduzzi said. “Probably don’t go into overtime if we can make one of them, as you guys know. Tough. One was a 46-yarder. It’s a long one. He came back and made one critical one in the fourth quarter.
“We got a blocked punt. We block a punt, heck of a job by P.J. O’Brien. Shoot, I thought we were going to score on it. Just a game of inches.”
It only continued. A Nick Patti touchdown run early in the fourth quarter was nullified by a holding penalty, and Pitt had to settle for a field goal.
Narduzzi, for the record, said that he will be sticking with Sauls going forward, who connected on 2-of-4 field goal attempts against Tennessee. However, while he has trust in Sauls going forward, he’s also offering now excuses to Pitt’s inability to capitalize Saturday.
“No excuses,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got to find a way to win. It’s a good football team. I love our football team. I love where they are. And, again, all our goals are ahead of us.”
Who Steps Up With Jared Wayne?
Wayne was really, really good against Tennessee. If Pitt needed a catch, he was consistently there.
Gavin Bartholomew had a helluva day himself, hauling in five receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown, and even he was in awe of the way Wayne’s steady impact manifests itself throughout the course of a football game.
“Jared’s a helluva player,” Bartholomew simply said following Saturday’s game.
Wayne led Pitt with seven receptions, racking up 82 yards and a touchdown — and his impact was much more significant than the scoresheet indicates. But even with Wayne’s consistency to begin the season, 10 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown through two games this season, he’s consistently been Pitt’s lone constant.
Konata Mumpfield made a solid debut against West Virginia, but he wasn’t nearly as effective against Tennessee. He’s young, new to the system still, but he’s shouldering the perhaps unfair expectation of replacing a former Biletnikoff Award winner. At least when it comes to filling that role in the offense and the expectation, he built up throughout summer camp.
Mumpfield hauled in four of 13 targets for 34 yards Saturday night. A big drop on Pitt’s first offensive possession was perhaps an omen. Mumpfield was tasked with some difficult catches throughout the game, getting his hands on balls that would’ve been considered spectacular catches. He didn’t haul in any of them.
It’s not a question of talent with Mumpfield. He’s had success at the college level, he’s been lauded as a leader and a difference maker in the wide receivers room. But he didn’t show as much against Tennessee. Hopefully, it’s the type of night that leads to a true breakout going forward.
If there’s any reason for concern in the wide receivers room though, it’s Bub Means’ start.
Means had a shaky debut, committing a crucial fumble against WVU and letting a football bounce off his hands on a perfectly thrown Slovis deep ball, and he wasn’t better against Tennessee. With just three catches on eight targets, 26 yards, he didn’t show up on the stat sheet. But he also had a ball bounce off his hands in the first quarter that would’ve put Pitt up 17-0. Instead, the score flipped to 10-7.
Means is big, fast and strong. He made strides through the summer that pointed to a big season complementing Mumpfield and Wayne. He needs to display more consistency going forward.
Jaylon Barden got involved early, reeling in two balls for 21 yards, but his targets dipped off. And Jaden Bradley didn’t receive any targets.
Israel Abanikanda Shines
If Rodney Hammond Jr. was Pitt’s offensive MVP against WVU, Israel Abanikanda was Pitt’s overall MVP against Tennessee.
It was Abanikanda’s best game at Pitt, his second 100-yard performance on the ground, and he provided the most reliable form of production all night long. His blend of speed, evasiveness and power is tough to match, and Tennessee struggled to contain him.
Abanikanda scored the first touchdown of the game on a 76-yard touchdown scamper, racing right through the heart of Tennessee’s defense on a well-designed draw play, and he was able to flash a little bit of his entire tool set in finding the end zone to put Pitt up 10-0.
“Right when I made that first cut-back because it was all green, and when I see green, I just gotta make stuff happen,” Abanikanda said following the game.
With 25 carries, five times more than Vincent Davis’s game totals, Abanikanda racked up 154 yards and a touchdown — and he added a 21-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter to set up Pitt’s late game-tying touchdown.
It was the type of performance that many expected him capable of, but more importantly, it was the type of performance that he expected of himself following last week’s performance against WVU.
“Throughout the week, I just kept trying to get better and better running and finishing because I knew I didn’t do that good last week,” Abanikanda said. “But knowing myself and just keep training harder and harder. I don’t keep stuff in my mind, just focus on the next week.
“So, today wasn’t a shock to me because I knew I could do it.”
Narduzzi felt like it was an outstanding day from his leading running back. Abanikanda ran hard, and when Pitt was trailing, Narduzzi just kept telling the team to feed its horse. It was a busy day for Abanikanda without Hammond available to go, but Abanikanda showcased why he’s expected to be one of the ACC’s top running backs.
If Slovis is forced to miss any sustained period of time, Abanikanda — and all of Pitt’s running backs — will be essential in carrying the load. As was seen in the second half with a near inability to throw the football.
Pitt’s Rush Defense Responds
Tennessee scored 34 points against Pitt Saturday night, but when it comes to slowing down Tennessee’s high-tempo offense, that’s not too bad.
Hooker gashed the defense for a few big plays through the air, notably hitting Cedric Tillman on big pass plays, but Pitt’s rush defense re-established itself against the Vols. With 35 rushing attempts, the Vols gained 91 yards (2.6 yards per attempt) and scored a pair of 1-yard touchdowns.
It was an effective night of slowing Tennessee’s tempo, all the way down to just 77 plays Saturday, and it came on the heels of a dominant defensive effort in the second half. The Vols scored just three points in the second half, a 51-yard attempt from Chase McGrath after Pitt held the Vols to just 41 yards on 15 plays.
Tennessee’s second half drives included:
- 5 plays, 8 yards, punt
- 3 plays, -3 yards, punt (blocked punt)
- 4 plays, 24 yards, forced fumble
- 15 plays, 41 yards, field goal
- 5 plays, 20 yards, punt
That’s a remarkable turnaround against such a high-powered offense. The blocked punt even, a special teams effort by a pair of top reserves in O’Brien and DeShields, was an effort that could’ve — should’ve — changed the outcome of the game.
Habakkuk Baldonado said the defense wasn’t worried about what the offense was doing with the football, and there was absolutely no frustration with the offense’s inconsistency in the second half. The defense was just focused on setting the offense up with opportunities.
“We don’t really focus on (what the offense does),” Baldonado said. “We get turnovers, we give it to the offense and the rest is up to them. We do our job, since we did it once, we try to do it again. We got one turnover, let’s go out and do it again.”
Baldonado was pleased with how the defense responded in the second half against such an up-tempo offense — a double-edged sword, he called it — and it came down to simply executing.
“It was better execution, like coming into this game, we played them last year, we knew what they were doing,” Habakkuk Baldonado said following the game. “Tempo is one of their strengths, and we just kept executing the plan to the best of our abilities.”
Pitt’s Offensive Line Remains Work In Progress
Slovis took some shots in the first half, stood tall in the pocket and made some excellent throws to lead Pitt to 17 points. However, it’s clear those hits added up.
Tennessee’s penchant for using an extra rusher off the edge, often unblocked off the edge, was able to hit home almost every play.
It appeared that Slovis’s injury occurred on the first play of Pitt’s last offensive possession of the first half, a play in which he was strip-sacked and tossed to the ground. The pass protection was shoddy, and Matt Goncalves on the right side of the line was particularly challenged.
Pitt ran some empty sets against Tennessee, lining up five wide, and Narduzzi said the offense needed to get the ball out quickly once snapped.
“I think sometimes you’re in a protection where we’re hot off that guy, and we have to get the ball out a little quicker, and sometimes you’re going to take those shots,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a different protection.
“If it’s empty, you’re going to be one short, and you have to get the ball off. You have five receivers out there.”
However, even with the different style of blocking, it’s Pitt needs to figure out what to do upfront. The rotation is one thing when it’s used to spell the starters in the second half of games where applicable, but the idea of rotating starters isn’t one to be continued.
Gabe Houy’s return at right tackle, after not taking a single snap through the first two games, will also be a welcomed boost. And with Owen Drexel picking up a left leg injury late in the fourth quarter, his status also bears watching.