After a 43-yard performance against Syracuse, Rodney Hammond Jr. has racked up 381 yards (at 4.2 yards per carry) and three touchdowns on the ground for Pitt this season. That’s in nine games. Syracuse, in one afternoon at Yankee Stadium, racked up 382 yards (at 5.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns on the ground.
Pat Narduzzi likes to run the football, and he likes to stop opposing teams from running the football. His team didn’t do either Saturday.
In eight-and-a-half seasons under Narduzzi, his defense has allowed more than 382 yards just twice in a single game — the 2015 Military Bowl against Navy, allowing 417 yards on 71 rushing attempts, and a 2017 ACC matchup against Georgia Tech (in the midst of the triple-option offense), allowing 436 yards on 67 carries.
Syracuse racked up 382 yards on 66 carries, and while ‘Cuse isn’t a service academy or a triple-option offense, the game plan clearly changed.
The Orange attempted just eight passes against Pitt, throwing for just 17 yards, but it didn’t matter. The Panthers knew what was coming, the coaches making the calls and players trying to execute on the field, but it didn’t matter much.
“Obviously they didn’t plan on passing, I’m not sure Shrader could throw it, he hadn’t played for the last couple of weeks — didn’t even know he was gonna go today,” Narduzzi said following the loss. “But had no idea who the starting quarterback was — you try to work for (Carlos) Del Rio Wilson and everybody else.
“They did a lot of different stuff that we had not practiced. We tried to adjust as we went, obviously tackling had something to do with it, and we’ll watch that and see who missed and where we executed wrong but 66 rushes. We were on the field for a long time.”
Pitt prides itself on stopping opposing run games, to the point that it leaves its cornerbacks out on islands, and it generally works. There have been two seasons (2020 and 2021) in which Pitt’s opponents haven’t even hit 200 rushing yards in a game.
In the Narduzzi era, there had been just four 300-yard rushing games (if you don’t count the two 400-yard games), but there are five now.
“It’s frustrating,” Narduzzi said. “You’re frustrated with a loss, period. There are a lot of things you’re frustrated with, but certainly, you’d like to stop the run. And we didn’t do that today.”
Starting quarterback Garrett Shrader was the leading receiver for Syracuse, catching a single pass for six yards, and a Wildcat approach — which Narduzzi said that Pitt was not at all prepared for after not seeing it on tape — was a nightmare scenario.
Tight end Dan Villari, who served as a Wildcat quarterback, led Syracuse with 154 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry, and running back LeQuint Allen (102 yards), Shrader (96 yards), running back Juwaun Price (28 yards) and running back Ike Daniels (4 yards) added additional yards.
In watching Syracuse, Narduzzi said the Wildcat formation had been primarily a goal line set for the Orange, definitely nothing like the Panthers saw today, and obviously, it led to serious problems for the Panthers all afternoon. It’s tough to adjust to what hasn’t been put on tape, and it appeared as though it was trending toward that point at the end of the first half, but the second half was a whole different beast.
Pitt had six offensive possessions in the second half. Four ended with turnovers, and two were three-and-outs. The interception was returned for a touchdown.
It’s hard, very, very, very hard to win that way, especially after allowing just 45 yards in the second quarter to rebound from a rough first defensive possession. ‘Cuse scored 14 points in the second half, and both touchdowns came off turnovers. A lot of yards came as Pitt was unable to maintain drives or turned the ball over.
This isn’t to absolve blame on the defense, it wasn’t a banner day for the unit, but it would’ve been a much, much better day if the offense could’ve sustained any — any — sort of momentum. And there’s a good chance ‘Cuse decided to go full Wildcat because the coaching staff decided that Pitt was going to be unable to keep up offensively.
“It’s never just one thing,” Narduzzi said. “There’s 11 guys on the field at one time, and we didn’t run the ball well enough, and they did. It’s a smattering of things.”
Pitt wasn’t good enough against Syracuse’s run-heavy offense, right from the first whistle, that much is clear. But it’s also not as if the defense has had any sort of help offensively. And that’s been a trend that’s continued over the last two seasons now. The third-worst run defense performance is certainly not solely on the shoulders of the defense.
When all is said and done, it will be the poor run defense — which certainly hasn’t been good enough — that shoulders the blame for a poor season. But it most certainly isn’t the No. 1 fault.
There are just two games left, sitting at 2-8 (1-6 ACC), and Boston College is up next.
For reference, team rushing yards allowed per game under Narduzzi:
2015 — 148.5
2016 — 119.5
2017 — 142.4
2018 — 178.3
2019 — 108.5
2020 — 93.5
2021 — 88.7
2022 — 98.0
2023 — 159.6