BLACKSBURG, Va. — If there has been one constant during the Pitt losing skid, aside from blind faith in Phil Jurkovec, it’s been Pat Narduzzi praising how the Panthers haven’t quit.
“I don’t think there’s quit out there, the kids were playing their tails off,” Narduzzi said following the loss to Virginia Tech. “The defense didn’t quit. They were moving the ball, it’s not like these gigantic plays, they just bleed us. Slow bleed.”
I guess Pitt didn’t quit. C’Bo Flemister didn’t quit as he bounced off a few would-be tacklers to score a 61-yard touchdown off a screen in the third quarter, and Braylan Lovelace scored his first collegiate touchdown on the ensuing VT drive, but even as the Hokies’ lead shrank to just a touchdown, it didn’t feel like Pitt had the ability to come all the way back. The lack of quit hasn’t helped the win column.
It didn’t in an embarrassing 38-21 loss to one of the poorer teams in the ACC.
Narduzzi promised — unprompted — that Pitt would go down to Virginia Tech and get it done. Pitt “would be back” after a blowout loss to No. 17 North Carolina, he said. This was supposed to be one of Narduzzi’s most complete teams. There’s a good chance now that it ends up being his worst.
“It’s not up to the Pitt standards, my standards, just extremely disappointed in the effort,” Narduzzi said late Saturday night after a loss to VT. “Too many missed tackles on defense, and I give Drones’ credit, I told you he’s a big tailback, he wasn’t easy to get down, so was No. 33, the tailback, but Jones was a man.
“And offensively, we didn’t do anything. We had two explosive plays, to Bub Means — that’s kind of what we were looking for — and the first series of the game, they were packing the box and we were trying to run it, and we were down, and we came in thinking we could possibly run the ball like we did a year ago. Except Izzy’s not in the backfield, we just didn’t run the ball period. C’Bo had a nice screen for a touchdown, but other than that, I didn’t feel it at all.”
It was a poor effort across all three phases. The Panthers produced the entirety of their offensive output on two plays, VT backup quarterback Kyron Drones set a bunch of career highs (the Hokies’ offense as a whole reached heights unseen since beating Wofford season) and even Ben Sauls and Caleb Junko weren’t spared from miscues.
But it’s still the offense that has let Pitt down this season more than anything else.
It’s difficult to reconcile with how the offense has devolved under Frank Cignetti Jr. over the past two seasons. His big, complex offense has been an abject disaster this season. Pitt is 95th in points per game, 112th in total offense (108th in passing offense and 88th in rushing offense), 101st in total first downs and 88th in third down conversions.
Pitt has dropped from averaging 41.4 points in 2021 to 31.3 in 2022 to 23.4 in 2023, and the loss to Virginia Tech highlighted many of the offensive inadequacies.
Pitt still checked in well below its season average with 273 yards. But it’s even worse when taking into account the fact that Pitt racked up 136 yards and both touchdowns on two plays. Of course, taking away splash plays is going to hurt how an offensive performance is viewed, but it’s unsustainable — and unexpected.
Aside from the two splash plays, Pitt averaged 2.7 yards per play. That’s 45 plays and 123 yards. No touchdowns. No field goals (a missed 51-yarder from Sauls) and just seven first downs. Four three-and-outs, one drive over 30 yards. That’s on Jurkovec, that’s on the offensive line and that’s on Frank Cignetti Jr.
“We gotta bye week to figure out what we do well, what we don’t do well, stop doing what we don’t do well and do something better,” Narduzzi said. “And we gotta obviously change some things up. And that’s what we’ll do in the open week, is try to figure out what we gotta do to get first downs and touchdowns.
“And they’re packing the box and what you saw to Bub, then obviously Bub’s out … that big post is what we saw during camp. It was a heckuva throw by Phil, and that’s what they gave us. They did that on the first series, they were giving it to us, and on the second series, it’s like ‘Okay, here we go.’ And then they just mixed it up from there. We didn’t do a good job of coming back and doing what we can do.”
There’s no creativity or innovation offensively. Cignetti is content to take what opposing defenses give the Panthers offense, but Jurkovec hasn’t even been able to do that consistently. There are some talented players on the offensive side of the ball, but the game plan doesn’t get the ball their way.
And with the “easy wins” now out of the way, Pitt has to play some of the top offenses in the ACC over the next two months. The defense — outside of the VT game, which wasn’t helped by a serious lack of time of possession — has been solid. But it will need to be spectacular going forward.
Even with lackluster and uninspired play-calling, Pitt could’ve won against Cincinnati and West Virginia to start the season 3-0. Obviously didn’t happen. I think Pitt was outmatched by North Carolina, but even against VT, a solid quarterback performance would’ve put Pitt in the position to win. Changes need to be made, including at quarterback, but I don’t know how much it will matter at this point in the season.
Pitt has No. 25 Louisville on the schedule coming off the bye week, followed by No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 5 Florida State back-t0-back (after what should be a winnable game against Wake Forest), and it ends the season on the road against No. 19 Duke. At 1-4, Pitt needs to take five of the next seven games just to be bowl eligible.
The Panthers have shown no reason why that should be expected at this point in time.