As frustrating as the Hokies' trip to Atlanta may have been, it's likely fair to say Pitt's week was (somehow) worse. We'll get into it below with Chas Rich, the fearless leader of Pitt Blather, but for now, take solace in the fact that Justin Fuente remains undefeated against Larry Fedora.
JC: It was a rough week for the Hokies and Panthers, with each squad falling — as favorites, no less — to Coastal Division foes. What went wrong for Pitt against a reeling North Carolina program?
CR: I don't believe that one team just has the number of another. Larry Fedora and UNC are testing that.
Lord, where to start. It's kind of a shame we didn't have our questions ready to go right after the respective losses as the self-loathing responses would have been off the charts.
The key moments were mostly in the first half.
- Allowing the opening kickoff to be returned for a TD.
- Quadree Henderson not simply fumbling as he is trying to get to the goal line a minute before the half, but the ball just staying on the sideline rather then going out of bounds. Allowing a UNC defensive player to scoop it and go 66 yards. UNC got a FG out of it for a 10 point swing.
Injuries in the secondary played something of a role. Avonte Maddox was mostly held out of the game due to an arm injury a couple weeks ago. Safety Damar Hamlin was hurt early. That thinned out the DBs and UNC was able to take advantage of that.
But this was freaking 1-8 UNC at Pitt. The defense has struggled all year to get those 3rd down stops consistently. They did it again in this game. They seemed as shell-shocked as everyone else at the start of the game. And then played pretty well in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Then broke down during the 4th.
The offense remains one-dimensional with only the running game, and UNC finally conceded it had to stack the box. Pitt had no way to take advantage of it.
JC: Max Browne, a former five-star recruit who started his career at Southern Cal, went down with a shoulder injury in early October that ultimately cost him his season. How much did Browne's untimely exit hurt the Panthers, and how has redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci performed in his absence?
CR: Well, I'd say it definitely cost Pitt the Syracuse game (that's where he got hurt). It was bad, because after a rocky start — which wasn't helped with having to face PSU and OK St — he was finally getting going.
DiNucci showed some early flashes to give hope. He came off the bench in a couple of games and provided a spark when the offense was still trying to find itself. But as the starter, it has been painful. He is out there as a game manager. He can run, but isn't doing as much of that. He's not very tall and his throwing motion is unorthodox to be kind. There are times when he tries to go deep, it looks like he is shot-putting the football.
In post-games, Pat Narduzzi has tried to praise DiNucci. In a way those moments have been the most damning because all he has are things like: "he played smart," "didn't make any big mistakes," and "didn't turn the ball over."
(Note, this is really starting to depress me.)
JC: After a pair of 8-5 seasons kicked off his career in the Steel City, it's been a rocky third year for Pat Narduzzi. What's the current mood among the Panthers' fan base regarding the former Michigan State coordinator? Does he get a pass given the injuries under center, or is there considerable unrest surfacing at Heinz Field?
CR: Mixed bag here. A lot of fans knew this could be a transition year. The departures on half the O-line, starting QB and RB James Conner are not easy to replace. To say nothing of losing an OC...again.
Factor in a non-con that featured 2 top-ten teams, and most of us were hoping to hit 7-5 maybe 8-4 with a little luck. And in hindsight, maybe even that was too optimistic. Such is the way when Narduzzi has actually succeeded in raising expectations. We're just not used to that.
There is a bit of extra frustration with the way the QB position has been handled. Pitt has a freshman QB (Kenny Pickett) who had his redshirt burned in the Syracuse game because DiNucci had his helmet knocked off (a second time) in the waning seconds and no timeouts left. After that, Narduzzi talked about getting Pickett work in games. It was awkwardly done the following week and Pickett hasn't played since. No other way to put it, but that Narduzzi completely botched things at the QB position.
The other issue is the offensive coordinator. Pitt is on OC #4 in 4 years. Narduzzi has hired 3 of them. Shawn Watson isn't Scot Loeffler bad, but he is definitely not doing a good job. I guess, sooner or later there was going to be a miss.
No matter who was hired, it was going to be drop-off. Somehow, someway Matt Canada and Pitt's offense last year were in total sync. From the players to the playcalling, it was amazing.
Watson has had no feel for the playcalling at times. From forgetting to run the ball (4th quarter of the UNC game, for example), to plays called that don't fit the players. I doubt Narduzzi would fire him, but we can dream. And if we're dreaming, it's Walt Harris walking in cold for the VT game standing on the sidelines.
I'd say most people still do or want to believe in Narduzzi. They just want the heads of the coordinators on pikes outside Heinz Field.
JC: Given Narduzzi's defensive background, the Panthers' struggles on that side of the football continue to surprise me. What's been the story on defense this year for Pitt? Is it a lack of talent across the board, or is Narduzzi's impressively stubborn system spelling trouble for the Panthers?
CR: Oof. It surprises us as well.
Some of it is simply talent. The defense is improving in fits and starts, but it is young and still very thin.
The other part is that Narduzzi is very determined to run the defense to his system regardless of the personnel. I'm sure you are aware that Narduzzi wants to run a very aggressive defense that has the D-line attack. The linebackers play closer to the line to help in run defense and to disguise blitzes. That leaves the secondary in one-on-one situations.
Really, it means that everything starts up front. If the D-line can't create the pressure and contain runs, the defense is susceptible to big plays. Whether on the option or the pass. There was a lot more of the big play breakdowns last year. They still happen simply because this type of defense will take those chances, but not as frequently as the secondary is noticeably better.
What is happening this year, is the underneath and short passes over the middle are hitting more frequently. The defense still isn't quite fast enough up front, so the QB has time to check down or just go to the soft spots in the coverage right away. Especially taking advantage of the linebackers who can be out of position as they try to get closer to the line.
Improvements are happening, but not nearly fast enough. As much abuse as fans want to put on DC Conklin, he is running the defense his boss wants. He doesn't get that much say in what the schemes are.
JC: Virginia Tech opened as nearly 17-point favorites over Pitt, a stunningly high number given the Hokies' recent offensive struggles. If we're giving out gambling advice, you have to love the Panthers catching two-plus scores, right?
CR: Not a chance. GT beat Pitt by 14. It bears repeating. Pitt lost to UNC. At home. I would not be advising anyone to take the points.
JC: Prediction-time: who wins Saturday, and why?
CR: While I wouldn't give advice for gambling purposes, I do think the game stays relatively close. I would love to say Pitt pulls out the win, but I think Pitt fails to take advantage of a couple turnovers, while the Hokies do get points from an interception. Pitt still runs the ball well with Darrin Hall, but is stuck trying to play catch-up.
VT does enough on offense and lets the defense do the rest.