When Pitt loses a game, Pat Narduzzi likes to be able to go back and watch the performance on tape. At least, he likes to say that he has to watch the tape before commenting upon what ailed his team in losses.
In Narduzzi’s postgame conference in the bowels of Kenan Memorial Stadium following Pitt’s loss to North Carolina, he only mentioned watching the tape twice. So, what did Narduzzi find upon watching the tape?
He felt like the offense played three good quarters. Didn’t play a great fourth quarter.
“The turnover changes things,” Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “When you look at the last three drives of the game, I don’t have the numbers, but I think it was a 48-yard line, the 35-yard line and the 44-yard line I think were the three last possessions our defense faced.”
Israel Abanikanda’s fumble in the fourth quarter hurt, considering Pitt was lined up around midfield. It was the only turnover of the game, for either Pitt or North Carolina.
It was a key turnover, and it came directly after North Carolina’s second touchdown of the second half. The second of four straight touchdown drives, turning a 24-14 Pitt lead into a 42-24 North Carolina lead.
Narduzzi said that the score didn’t indicate what kind of game it was, and that the fourth quarter allowed North Carolina to build a lead. But that isn’t quite accurate. Yes, Pitt did hold a 10-point lead in the third quarter, but it led to a 28-point swing from UNC over the course of the second half. As Narduzzi said, it was how Pitt finished.
Pitt finished a 24-21 lead with a punt, a fumble, a punt and a turnover on downs in the second half. Obviously, that resulted in zero points as Drake Maye led North Carolina’s offense to a barrage of touchdowns. When it came to Pitt’s offensive performance, it left quite a bit to be desired.
“On offense, the one turnover, which is better than four, so that stands out to me, we didn’t throw any picks, which is huge, we protected the ball a little bit there,” Narduzzi said. “But it’s another turnover that ends up getting you beat fast, okay, when you get the ball into plus territory.”
Pitt looked okay through the first half even. The first possession started off with a 40-yard shot to Bub Means. Yes, a deep ball. Kedon Slovis moved the ball well, and Abanikanda capped the drive with a six-yard touchdown run from the wildcat.
But even as Abanaikanda racked up his third 100-yard, three-touchdown performance of the season, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough. Not when Maye accounted for 388 passing yards and five touchdowns — to go along with a team-high 61 rushing yards.
When it came to Pitt’s inability to match North Carolina offensively in the second half, aside from the fact that Maye is one of the very, very best quarterbacks in all of college football, Narduzzi said it was hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.
“Hard for me to say exactly, but a little bit of what they were doing, playing a little bit deeper, not giving us as much of the deep stuff, and then we just didn’t execute underneath, whether it was a drop — we had an RPO where we had a first down going and then Marcus Minor is downfield, which to his defense it was an RPO; maybe we didn’t get the ball out fast enough,” Narduzzi said, “He was uncovered; that made it a lot easier for him to get down the field about seven yards, so it was a good call.”
While North Carolina put together scoring drive after scoring drive in the second half, what did Pitt do? Punt, fumble, turnover on downs and fumble. Following an 83-yard drive to open the second half, Pitt’s longest second drive spanned 24 yards.
According to Narduzzi, it comes down to coaching. Coaching and execution.
“We just didn’t execute as well in the second half,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know what it was. Did they over-execute? Did they play better? They batted down a couple balls. A little bit of everything. Again, more than one guy, I can tell you that.”
There are 11 guys on the field, yes, that’s been a common sentiment. It hasn’t been a season in which any sort of offensive consistency has been established. Even with transfers that have succeeded at the college level elsewhere.
Slovis is the Pac-12’s all-time leader (of anyone ever) in completion percentage, the freshman All-Pac-12 Player of the Year and an All-Pac-12 first-teamer. Mumpfield was a freshman All-American at Akron last season. It’s not as if Pitt was relying upon inexperienced players — or even players without significant accolades.
But for Narduzzi, again, it comes down to execution at Pitt in 2022.
“You know, I mean, your expectations are your expectations,” Narduzzi said. “You can say Konata played at Akron and not in a Power Five. Same thing with Bub (Means) playing down at Louisiana Tech. You can go back and look at the stats; it doesn’t matter what they did in the past. What are they doing here, what are they doing now? It comes down to execution.”
Mumpfield has caught 30 receptions for 289 yards and a touchdown and Means has caught 19 receptions for 207 yards. But it goes even deeper than just catching footballs and producing big stat lines.
“It comes down to that, and it comes down to blocking,” Narduzzi said. “Konata has got a chance on a third down, going back to another question, third down late in the half, I want to say it’s third down and 10, and we throw a bubble to Konata. If you look at the coverage there, you’re going, ‘This is going to be a first down.’ But we don’t block the guy and he comes through, corner comes through, we don’t block him.
“That’s execution. That’s not on — Konata can go for 25, but we don’t give him a chance to, so it’s execution and whoever that guy was that missed the block – I’m not even going to call his name out – but that’s what happens. It takes 11.”
It takes 11 offensively, and it takes 11 defensively too. Especially when dealing with a quarterback like Maye who stresses opposing defenses with his arm and legs. Maye took some shots from the Pitt defense, especially in the first first half, but he continued to bounce off the turf and make plays.
Maye did a large majority of his rushing damage on undesigned scrambles, making plays with his legs on third and fourth down especially, and Pitt’s defense was unable to find ways — consistently — of killing his creativity. When it looked like he was stopped, he’d find a way to pick up three, four more yards.
“The thing on defense that disappointed me the most was obviously the ability of the quarterback to scramble, which I told you guys, he was good, but once he started to scramble, our linebackers were all eyes in the backfield instead of eyes on the receivers and getting the re-routes and doing their deal,” Narduzzi said. “They started getting like, ‘We’ve got to stop this quarterback; we can’t let him scramble again.’
“Then when you do that, the D-line is hanging out the linebackers because they’re not containing the quarterback and making bad decisions trying to get sacks, and the linebackers are going, okay, we’ve got to cover for the D-line, so when you cover for the D-line, you leave your DBs hanging out.
“That’s why it takes 11 to play great defense, and when you do that, you’re going to be in trouble. We lost our faith that we were going to put pressure on the quarterback and then it just goes from the front end to the back end.”
Pitt limited Maye effectively for a half, but as the game wore on and Maye was able to escape Pitt’s pass rush, he was able to methodically pick apart the defense with his arm. And when he was forced to use his legs, it more often than not ended with a conversion.