SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It’s hard to take much away from a 58-7 loss. It’s nearly impossible to take anything good away from a 51-point loss.
Pitt actually held its own for two quarters, trailing 17-0 after a very rough half of football that would’ve been far, far worse without an inspired effort from the defense. Unfortunately for Pitt, it seems that Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman did a good job inspiring his squad at the half.
“I challenged every person in the locker room that we got to come out with a sense of urgency and on fire to perform the way we should,” Freeman said following the Fighting Irish win. “I was pleased with the way the entire team came out the second half and really finished drive offensively, defensively and even special teams.”
And the way he ended that quote is interesting. Pitt didn’t finish offensively, defensively and even on special teams in the most lopsided loss of the Pat Narduzzi era.
Pitt played a very, very poor game against Notre Dame, and it will certainly not get any easier as No. 4 Florida State comes to town next weekend.
If You Don’t Burn the Tape, Learn From It
For Christian Veilleux, who completed less than 50% of his pass attempts and threw four interceptions, it would be easy to throw away the tape and never think about the loss again. I think I’d do that.
But he said that, while he places the blame for the loss solely on his own shoulders, all he can do now is learn from the experience and do all that he can to ensure such an experience never happens again. It’s up to him, and his teammates, to grieve, get back to the facility and grow.
“It’s just a regular Sunday, you come in, you lift, you watch the film, and you move on,” Veilleux said after the loss. “I think we’re all excited for the opportunity, and I don’t think any of us are gonna be like, ‘Ah, man, we got our butts whooped by Notre Dame.’ It is what it is, sometimes you have bad days, but we’ve gotta come into the office tomorrow, just move on and one step forward every day.”
Pitt was poor across all three phases, it certainly wasn’t just Veilleux (even just offensively), and the coaching staff is not without its share of the blame.
“Obviously, the team is going through a tough situation right now,” Narduzzi said following the loss. “We’re not playing as good and we’ve got a lot of young football players out there. We’ll stick together as a football team and lock back in. We’ve got another great Florida State team coming in, and we’ve gotta gather together and get going.”
After postgame comments trended seemingly nationwide, with Narduzzi releasing a Twitter statement to say that the loss fell 100% on his shoulders, he needs to ensure that the team is aligned going forward.
Notre Dame was certainly a learning experience in many ways.
No Fixing This Offense
I don’t think the offense — either through coaching or personnel or scheme or whatever — is fixable this season. The Frank Cignetti Jr. era seemingly gets worse every week.
Pitt was dangerously close to losing 58-0 against the Fighting Irish. Aside from a fourth quarter scoring drive led by Nate Yarnell in garbage time, moving the ball 75 yards in three plays, the Panthers managed 180 yards and 0 points.
This is a good Notre Dame defense, a great one even, but Pitt should not have looked like the JV squad getting to scrimmage up against the upperclassmen. It started slowly and just got worse.
“I’ll just go back to the first play of the game,” Narduzzi said. “We get sacked. There’s a crossing route, and if you back and watch it, he’s wide open and (Veilleux) doesn’t see it. There’s some big dudes in front of you, and there’s things happening out there. It’s just one thing after another, and it snowballs a bit, but we’ve got to make plays.
“They do a good job on defense. Give them credit. They beat down Southern Cal two weeks, had an open week and had two weeks to prepare for us and were fresh.”
But even when given an opportunity, Pitt turned two first quarterback interceptions and a turnover on downs into 0 points. Three punts (11 total plays) and an interception of their own.
Veilleux threw four interceptions on the day, including a pick-six in the third quarter, which was the first of back-to-back drives with interceptions, and it was the first time (if you don’t count the second half against North Carolina) that Veilleux truly looked out of place.
But he wasn’t helped by his coaches either. Just 14 carries for Rodney Hammond Jr. and C’Bo Flemister. Gavin Bartholomew wasn’t targeted a single time, which Veilleux attributed to just how the scheme, the protection and the coverage unfolded, but he did say that there was an emphasis on getting the ball to the wide receivers.
It’s a bad offense that has a bad scheme, no identity, and, for some reason, doesn’t get the ball to its playmakers. And that’s not gonna change over the final month of the season.
I mean, Pitt was running the option today. With Christian Veilleux.
Missed Tackles Once Again Doom Defense
Notre Dame scored 58 points against Pitt, the third most given up during the Narduzzi era, and the Panthers allowed two special teams touchdowns and a defensive touchdown. 37 points still isn’t good, but it’s what happens when there’s no offensive help.
It’s not a perfect Pitt defense, but it is a unit that is good enough to win football games. Pitt was never going to beat Notre Dame, not like this, but maybe if Pitt capitalizes on a couple of early turnovers or doesn’t implode to start the second half, it’s not a 37-0 game with over eight minutes left in the third quarter.
But. Tackling is still an issue. A major issue. Pitt didn’t create nearly enough pressure on Sam Hartman, as Samuel Okunlola record the Panthers’ lone sack, and ND’s Audric Estime ran for 114 yards (at six yards per carry) and three touchdowns.
But man, after poor tackling against Louisville and Wake Forest, Pitt didn’t clean it up against the Irish.
“Estime is a good back,” Narduzzi said. “He’s physical, and they’re rotating three or four backs in there and give them credit. A couple of times, there were some fit problems, playing a lot of young linebackers as well. I thought we did a good job. I don’t know what the rushing stats were at halftime, but we did a good job there and just got worn out.
“We’ll see, I don’t think there were a whole lot of adjustments on their side. They didn’t do anything different, we just didn’t tackle as well. It’s mostly on the edge. I know the first touchdown was a crack replace, and we didn’t get off of it fast enough. I’m not sure exactly why. The corner says he came in and took the guy and didn’t know if it was a crack or he was running a crossing route and they got us there. We’ll see the fit on that.
“It’s just the little things here and there, a play here or there, offensively, defensively and certainly special teams.”
I don’t think it’s a bad defensive unit. In fact, I think it’s a pretty solid one, but when its counterpart struggles so mightily, all of the issues will emerge.
No Bright Spots on Special Teams Either
Pitt went three-and-out on its first offensive possession, receiving the ball on its own 35 after P.J. O’Brien Jr. picked off Hartman, and one of Caleb Junko’s best punts of the night was completely wasted.
Junko booted the ball 47 yards, forcing Notre Dame wideout Chris Tyree to field the ball inside the Irish 20, but even though Byron Floyd sprinted all the way down the field after snapping the ball, he bounced off Tyree. As did four or five more Pitt gunners.
And Tyree raced 82 yards back to the end zone, pinballing through the Pitt coverage team, to give the Fighting Irish an early 7-0 lead.
“The coverage was good, the protection was good all game,” Narduzzi said. “Last season, it was more punter issues and dropping snaps and we have not done that this year. It’s just a different way. Again, our coverage was good. I didn’t see exactly where the location of the punt was. It probably wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful either. It’s not the reason.
“We’ve got guys there to make the tackle, and it’s the same thing on the kickoff return late where we’ve got guys there to make a tackle and we overrun the ball and just take some bad angles. Sometimes good players do that to you.”
Notre Dame scored twice on special teams, the Tyree return and a fumble recovery in the third quarter after M.J. Devonshire fumbled inside the 5-yard line. Two disastrous plays.
And while Junko finished the night with an average of 41.3 yards per punt, with seven punts on the night, that’s only a minimal improvement over the last few weeks. And the random 30-yard punts, as was the case with Wake Forest, have come back to hurt the Panthers.
Even the ever-reliable Ben Sauls missed his lone field goal attempt, sending a 45-yard attempt wide in the first half.
There isn’t as much of a watchful eye on special teams units, and the Pitt special teams unit — as a whole — played pretty well through the first half of the season. It was disastrous, in kicking, punting and returning against Notre Dame. And for a team that struggles to score, that cannot happen.
It feels like Pitt is in need of foundational change when it comes to special teams — a lingering, multi-season issue now.