PITTSBURGH — Pitt didn’t blow a fourth quarter lead against Syracuse. It was an encouraging sign after back-to-back blown leads — and a third against Georgia Tech two games prior — but Pitt was still outscored.
Syracuse’s Andre Szmyt nailed a 48-yard field goal with 4:52 left in the fourth quarter, and Pitt’s only points of the frame resulted from Deslin Alexandre sacking ‘Cuse’s Carlos Del Rio-Wilson out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
With a 3-2 fourth quarter deficit, I guess it’s a good thing that Pitt managed to score 17 points over the first three quarters.
It was a performance — a 19-9 win — that pleased Pat Narduzzi well enough.
“Great game, great team win by our football team,” Narduzzi said following the win. “A lot of good things. Still a lot of things we can clean up. I’m still not sure we’ve played our best game.
“We’ve found a way to just do some crazy things at times. That’s kind of who this ’22 team has been. A lot of great plays.”
Pitt outgained Syracuse 339-145, racked up 164 rush yards on as many attempts as Syracuse ran offensive snaps as a whole and racked up six sacks and nine tackles for loss on the afternoon. It was as good a defensive showing — through four quarters — as Pitt has put together all season. And it resulted in a key win.
Defensive Potential On Full Display
Pitt’s defense was beaten up by North Carolina in the fourth quarter last week, but who hasn’t been beaten up by UNC’s Drake Maye and crew this season? Even those not backed in precarious situations because of offensive failure.
It wasn’t as if Pitt needed to “bounce back” as it was to put together a complete performance, with a little bit of help from Kedon Slovis and the offense along the way. And it’s safe to the complete shutdown of Syracuse’s defense sufficed.
‘Cuse backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson wasn’t particularly good at any point Saturday, but he was also running for his life throughout the entire contest — and effectively locked down through the air by Pitt’s secondary.
Del Rio-Wilson completed just 8-of-23 passing attempts for 120 yards.
“The coverage was really good,” Narduzzi said. “That one long pass wasn’t very good, but the coverage was great. I saw more linebacker PBUs. We didn’t do that — we lost our focus a week ago. Just with the quarterback scrambling, our D-line did a great job putting pressure on the quarterback.”
That one pass play was a 45-yard pitch and catch between Del Rio-Wilson and D’Marcus Adams in the fourth quarter, setting up the aforementioned Szmyt field goal. A.J. Woods was simply beaten in coverage down the sideline. It happens.
If Adams’ catch and a 31-yard catch from Damien Alford over Brandon Hill in the second quarter are eliminated, that’s six points and 76 yards off the board. Which would have left Syracuse with three points and 69 total yards of offense.
Sean Tucker picked up just 19 yards on 10 carries, his longest carry only picking up seven yards, and Syracuse as a team racked up just 25 yards on 25 carries. Pitt’s run defense was clicking in all phases, with perhaps the best all-around day from Pitt’s linebacking corps this season, and the pass rush may have been even better.
Deslin Alexandre led the way with 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, putting together a game-wrecking performance capped by a safety in the fourth quarter.
And of course, it was set up by SirVocea Dennis downing a Sam Vander Haar punt at the 1-yard line on special teams. Dennis himself led Pitt with eight tackles (two solo) and added a sack, tackle for loss and forced a fumble.
Narduzzi praised Calijah Kancey’s effort in the win, highlighting how Syracuse struggled to block him as he lined up on the interior and on the edge, and Kancey’s impact was felt with a sack and two tackles for loss.
Solomon DeShields added a sack and tackle for loss, Shayne Simon racked up 1.5 tackles for loss and Habakkuk Baldonado managed a half sack and tackle for loss.
“They got after the quarterback, and that was the difference,” Narduzzi said. “Again, obviously it’s a different team. It’s a top-20 win, I can tell you that, but I don’t know if it’s the caliber of a North Carolina. You can grade that the way you want to grade it. It wasn’t North Carolina, it was Syracuse, and again, a really good football team.”
It was a complete performance that showcased what Pitt’s defense is capable of producing when all the pieces of the puzzle are clicking. Narduzzi said that the UNC performance wasn’t “who we are.”
The Syracuse performance might not be who Pitt’s defense is either, but it’s certainly a showing of what can be.
All Aboard Hot Rod (and C’Bo)
Israel Abanikanda went through warmups, was named Pitt’s starting running back ahead of kickoff and then didn’t take the field.
He was dressed, but he gave way to Rodney Hammond Jr. as an undisclosed injury held him out of the contest. Pitt’s running backs room as a whole didn’t miss a beat against a Syracuse defense that has been effective against the run at times this season.
With 28 carries for 124 yards (both career highs in Hammond’s brief Pitt tenure), Pitt leaned heavily upon Hammond for large stretches of the game. His hard, physical run style and decisive cuts made life difficult for Syracuse defenders, and it wasn’t a surprise.
“We see Rodney as a starter, period, him and Izzy, and if he didn’t get hurt, he’d have had a heck of a lot more carries than he’s had so far to this point,” Narduzzi said. “Like I said to him before the game, this is what you’ve been waiting for. He’s been wanting more carries.”
With an injury at the end of the West Virginia game in the season opener, Hammond’s slowly worked his way back into the lineup. He only received eight carries against Louisville and North Carolina, but he was ready for Syracuse.
And he wasn’t the only running back who was ready for a bigger workload either.
C’Bo Flemister entered the Syracuse game with just 45 yards on 11 carries this season. He ran the ball 10 times for 42 yards, flipping into the end zone from a yard out to cap an impressive individual effort on the drive.
And while it wasn’t a surprise for Flemister, Narduzzi said he wasn’t surprised to see the effort either.
“It’s not all of a sudden,” Narduzzi said. “You’ve got Izzy, you’ve got Rodney who was out. And C’Bo is a good football player. He’s got some juice to him. I just thought — he plays in games like he practices, and again, you’ve got deep position there.
“He’s got another year. I hope he comes back because I think that guy can be really, really good. … He’s tough, he’s physical. He’s just got some juice to him. That drive was all him. Obviously, besides that third quarter drive, he did a heck of a job.”
With Abanikanda out, Pitt needed its depth to shine. Hammond showcased what will make him a starting running back — now and in the future for Pitt — and Flemister and Vincent Davis saw time on the field.
It’s Abanikanda’s team when he’s healthy, but Hammond will not be denied his touches either.
Slovis is Slovis
Pitt just needed Slovis to not lose the football game. Even with Abanikanda out, the expectation was not that he would step up and win the game with his arm. It was that he wouldn’t make bone-headed decisions and lose the game.
He got off to a really poor start.
Hammond carried the football seven times on Pitt’s opening offensive possession, to Slovis’ two pass attempts, and the second was a play nearly identical to one of Slovis’s first half interceptions against Louisville two weeks ago.
Slovis faced pressure, had a Syracuse defender hanging on his legs and lobbed an ill-advised pass into the back of the end zone — into the waiting arms of ‘Cuse’s Ja’Had Carter. And if he hadn’t caught it, there were a couple of his teammates in the area.
It was an awful decision from Slovis, who simply needed to take the sack or throw the football out of bounds, and it was even more agonizing as it was the same mistake he made just two weeks prior. A player of his experience level should not and cannot be making those mistakes.
Narduzzi felt like — aside from that interception — Slovis played well enough to win the football game.
“Besides that big risk — he got hit as he threw it, and I think he was throwing it away is what he told me,” Narduzzi said. “He didn’t get it far enough out of the end zone. But I thought he played solid. We’ll go back and look at the tape, but I think it was good. He played good enough to win the football game.”
Slovis completed 16-of-23 pass attempts (70%) for 178 yards and the first quarter interception. I wouldn’t say he played well enough to win the game, but aside from the interception, he didn’t do anything to lose the game either. He targeted Jared Wayne and Konata Mumpfield heavily, hitting both six times.
Slovis completed a couple of passes around 20 yards downfield to Wayne, including a beautiful 23-yard strike between a couple of Syracuse defenders into the waiting arms of Wayne, and he utilized Mumpfield’s catch and run ability. It was okay. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t a detriment.
Saturday’s game was Slovis’s fifth game with less than 200 yards this season, his fourth straight game without a passing touchdown and fifth game with an interception this season. He’s completed 137-of-231 pass attempts (59%) for 1,731 yards with five touchdowns and six interceptions.
It’s fair to say this is Slovis. He isn’t going to win any games for Pitt this season, but he can play well enough to not lose them either.
Sloppy Mistakes Still Haven’t Gone Away
Pitt once again racked up the penalties against Syracuse, committing nine fouls for 73 yards — across offense, defense and special teams. Pitt has committed 68 penalties this season now, good for about 8.5 per game for 62 yards.
And speaking of special teams, the unit has been an unmitigated disaster all season long. Syracuse was just another example — three punters used, a two-yard punt and a horrible unnecessary roughness call on Karter Johnson as a gunner.
Pitt was forced to call a timeout on just the second offensive snap of the game to avoid a delay of game. Wayne threw Pitt’s second interception on a poorly designed trick play and a botched snap between Jake Kradel and Slovis nearly served as Pitt’s third turnover.
Speaking of Wayne, who put together his second straight 100-yard performance as a receiver, he was tasked to serve as a quarterback on a double pass trick play in which he was required to complete a ball from sideline to sideline.
Wayne has shown a solid arm in the past, but there’s a reason he’s a wide receiver. Asking Slovis to complete his pass attempt would’ve been difficult, let alone asking him to do so.
The interception wasn’t only unsurprising, it was a drive killer directly following Mumpfield’s 29-yard gain on a bubble screen.
It was a poorly managed performance on and off the field for Pitt Saturday afternoon.
Is It Sustainable?
With just three games left on the schedule, Pitt has a chance to finish the regular season with an 8-4 (5-3 ACC) record.
Pitt will be on the road against Virginia and Miami and will host Duke. One more win earns a bowl game, and so a neutral sight game would also be in the cards.
With a healthy duo of Abanikanda and Hammond, the version of Slovis who can use his receivers to complete a handful of deep passes per game and a defense that can get after opposing quarterbacks, Pitt should likely be favored in three games against mediocre opponents.
However, if there’s one thing Pitt has proven this season, it’s that Pitt is consistently inconsistent. Syracuse’s No. 20 ranking wasn’t indicative of the caliber of Pitt’s opponent Saturday, but a win is a win. Especially against a ranked opponent.
Pitt can max out with a 9-4 record this season, which would mean five straight wins to cap the season and a respectable bounce back.