PITTSBURGH — There was a point in the third quarter where I found myself wondering if there were going to be any actual positives to come out of such a poor Pitt loss to Cincinnati.
Pitt was trailing by 20 points, the offense looked completely lost, the defense was completely unable to stop Cincinnati running back Corey Kiner and even Ben Sauls missed a field goal. It was bleak. It still isn’t great. But there are some things that — hopefully — are taken from this disappointing loss.
Pat Narduzzi likened Saturday’s loss to a true season opener, but it certainly wasn’t. Pitt opened the season against Wofford last weekend, and Saturday’s game was a very, very poor showing for a squad that preached the seriousness with which it approached Wofford and how that business-like approach boded well for the bulk of the season.
“Obviously not happy with the performance out there today,” Narduzzi said following the loss. “I thought we played a better second half. But we didn’t make enough plays. The game of football is opportunities, and we had opportunities out there. We didn’t make a play.
“I thought we started off defensively, just couldn’t make a play. Didn’t stop their run. If you don’t stop their run and you don’t run the football, it’s hard to win the game. Didn’t get any turnovers in the first half.
“Again, it’s a non-conference game is the way I look at it, and then we’ve got West Virginia this week, so that’s where our focus will go.”
Pitt needed to show that it took Wofford as the warm-up it needed and come out firing on a Cincinnati squad that was picked to finish second to last in the Big 12. It didn’t do that. In fact, there are only more questions now after the demoralizing loss.
The season isn’t over, not even close, but Pitt needs to figure out what kind of team it’s going to be this season.
Phil Jurkovec Not Good Enough
Phil Jurkovec simply wasn’t good enough to beat Cincinnati. He didn’t have a ton of help, but it would be insincere to say he was anything but bad Saturday night.
And he still could’ve erased three poor quarters of football by leading a game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, but the offense as a whole — coaches and players — squandered not one but two potential go-ahead opportunities.
Jurkovec completed 10-of-32 pass attempts (31%) for 179 yards and three touchdowns. The three touchdowns look nice, and he made two legitimate throws on touchdowns to Konata Mumpfield and Gavin Bartholomew. But there was a lot wrong. And it would be unfair to blame his struggles solely on the offensive line.
“I think first thing, it starts with the offensive line,” Narduzzi said. “It takes 11. Everybody is going to point at the quarterback. He’ll get all the glory when you win football games. He’s a great quarterback, got a lot of faith in him.
But there was too much pressure. Phil got sacked five times. That can’t happen. When was the last time we won a game with five sacks on the quarterback?”
Jurkovec was pressured more than Pitt’s offensive line should be comfortable with, but Jurkovec was a problem Saturday. He was indecisive, he missed open throws with his eyes and his arm and he just looked uncomfortable at the helm. That cannot continue, especially for a sixth-year senior in his third season of a Frank Cignetti Jr. offense.
After his comments after the game, Jurkovec will not have much sympathy from the fanbase either.
Offensive Approach Needs to Change
It’s one game, but damn does it feel like I fell for the Bub Means hype this summer. He was a complete non-factor Saturday. And it was the way he failed to make an impact that stood out.
And it’s kind of remarkable that he was a non-factor with 11 targets. 11. And he didn’t haul a single pass in. There were certainly some difficult catches in those 11, some underthrown balls that would’ve been excellent catches, but he even let the easy ones fall to the turf. 11 targets. 0 catches.
Pitt needed Means to leave the drops in 2022 and emerge as that contested catch target this season. He hasn’t, at all, and that’s a major problem. There’s an easy Waffle House joke in here, but I’m not gonna make it. It’s just inexcusable to have that level of non-impact with such a high volume.
You know what else is inexcusable? Gavin Bartholomew not even being on the field late in the fourth quarter. Or Rodney Hammond Jr. And speaking of Hammond, he received six carries against Cincinnati.
Does Narduzzi feel like Pitt needs to get Hammond more involved in the offense?
“Maybe,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll look at the tape and find out who was being effective back there, but again, it comes down to you get behind and you’re throwing the ball, there’s no guys getting hand-offs, period.”
I know Pitt wants to spread the wealth with the running backs, and Daniel Carter and C’Bo Flemister are certainly serviceable running backs, but Hammond is your best running back. Six touches aren’t enough.
I don’t think Frank Cignetti Jr. called a horrible game, until the last couple of drives at least, but I don’t get — at all — why he isn’t making use of his best players. Bartholomew picks up 60 yards on a catch-and-run, and he follows it up with a leaping back-shoulder touchdown catch. Konata Mumpfield brings in all four targets — including two nice touchdown catches. Pitt’s two best receiving options.
And on the last two drives, with the chance to take the lead, Pitt dials up deep balls to Means and Daejon Reynolds. And not one connected. Not one. Game over.
When Pitt gave the ball to its best players, good things happened. It wasn’t enough.
Defense Offered Chance to Win
Pitt allowed 180 rushing yards in the first half. A little less than double last season’s per-game average. Not good. It came at about a 9-yard per rush clip. Very not good.
And if there was anything about Pitt’s loss that stood out to Narduzzi, it was the lackluster run defense.
“No question about it,” Narduzzi said. “You know that. We like to stop the run. We didn’t do that. They do a nice job on offense with unbalance and some of the different things that they do. We didn’t react, and we didn’t do a good enough job coaching to get it stopped. We did a better job in the second half.”
Pitt allowed just 36 rushing yards, 108 total yards, in the second half. And 36 of those yards, and the only touchdown in the second half came off a Jurkovec fumble inside Pitt territory in the third quarter on the first offensive play of the half. 35 yards of Cincy’s Emory Jones’ 125 on the night on one drive.
Pitt locked Jones up all night long. He wasn’t the dynamic threat that he was against Eastern Kentucky. Kiner did the most damage. But Pitt limited him and Jones and the entire Bearcats’ offense in the second half.
“We’ll look at the tape and find out exactly what, but we made adjustments,” Narduzzi said. “We talk about being one of the best adjustment defenses in the country, and we did second half. They had seven points in the second half off of a 39-yard drive off of a turnover. Otherwise, they’re shut out in the second half. They had a short field in a sudden change situation, and it’s hard to win like that. We should have shut them out in the second half, and we’d be winning, period.”
Well. We’ve gone over what went wrong offensively already. No need to rehash.
When Pitt needed the defense most, it forced a punt off a 7-play, 14-yard drive with just over seven minutes left. Three and out. And then — again — the defense got the ball back courtesy of Marquis Williams — with Bangally Kamara forcing pressure and Williams picking Jones off. And Pitt turned it over on downs.
The defensive line looks to be a bit of a concern still, failing to generate much pressure against Jones, but I think that the growth on the defensive line will come along. There needs to be a true difference-maker either inside or outside to pair with Dayon Hayes.
Everything Needs Work
There isn’t a unit that is safe from criticism after Saturday’s performance. Maybe punter. Caleb Junko was pretty good.
And it’s only been two weeks, but Pitt has already reached a point where it needs to figure out rather quickly how this season is going to go. Cincinnati wasn’t supposed to be a roadblock. Cincy and West Virginia were projected to finish 13th and 14th in the Big 12 this season. If Pitt plays like it did against WVU, it could be a long night.
There’s a clear weakness in the West Virginia secondary, but who says Pitt is going to be able to exploit that against the Mountaineers? There’s a lot of work to be done, things to figure out, this week.
“Everything,” Narduzzi said. “We have a lot to work on. Like I told the guys afterwards, last week there was no weaknesses. Maybe they thought they were too good; maybe they thought they were just going to show up today. But now you find out where your weaknesses are. I think coaches know on both sides of the ball. We played a few guys on offense and defense, and we’re going to find out who can make plays.”
Narduzzi said a number of times, at least five, that Pitt would go back and watch the tape and try to fix what went wrong. There won’t be a whole lot of time to prepare for West Virginia, but it has to improve rapidly. The schedule will only get tougher after West Virginia.
Narduzzi, at least, was pleased that his squad didn’t quit Saturday night.
“Again, the big thing is our guys didn’t quit,” Narduzzi said. “When everybody would have thought, okay, it’s not looking good, our guys are coming back and we’ve got a chance to win the game. If we don’t miss a field goal early in the game, we’re in field goal range, we’re tying it up and we’re going to overtime and you guys are working overtime. But we didn’t make enough plays.”
Pitt needs to figure out exactly what the identity of this team is and fast.