I say regular season because I’ll assume there is a slim to none chance we see a bowl date. However, as much as I dislike the idea of a team with a losing record being “rewarded” with a bowl game (I’m very ‘old school’ on that count) there is no doubt in my mind we should take it.
For no other reason that 75% of the bowls mean relatively nothing anyway, are played solely for TV viewing, and Pitt needs the extra ACC-shared money we’d get from it. We’ll see what happens with that.
Now – lets breakdown the season and because Pitt always seems to save the best for last we’ll start with the ending first.
As you all know I feel very strongly that my role as the blog writer on here is to be a critic. And that is meant in the true definition of the word as it applies to the addressing of the arts, politics, and now sports. That also means I try to look at Pitt football and all that it encompasses without my fan’s blinders on – and make no mistake I am a Pitt football fan.
So with that in mind here is my take on this 2017 season. To recap: we now sit at 5-7 overall with the regular season finished. All that is left for this Pitt team now is to sit and wait to see if we get the dregs of the bowl game invites.
Head Coach Pat Narduzzi started off his Pitt career with two consecutive 8 win seasons, identical 8-5 records, with two losses two bowl appearances. Because we lost key players from our 2016 squad – including QB Nate Peterman, whose SR season goes down as one of the best Pitt QBs have ever had, along with two great offensive lineman and 2/3s of our defensive starters we all knew we were in for a negative dip this year.
However not to many Pitt fans felt we’d be ending up with a losing season – I think most of us predicted along the lines of my preseason thoughts of a 7-5 or at the very least 6-6 regular season record. There were of course the outliers either way with a few fans thinking we’d have 10+ wins and on the flip side some stating we’d drop down to 4-5 wins.
However at two wins and five losses a bit past the season’s halfway point it looked like a tanked year and that those latter fans would have had the correct impression of the team.
But the staff and players got some things together and as much as I hate to say it I believe the team’s attitude changed when QB Max Browne went out for the year due to shoulder surgery. Sometimes you have addition by subtraction and when rsSO Ben DiNucci went in the offense perked up a small bit – at least as far as attitude goes.
Honestly though I think it was the reality that Browne wouldn’t take anymore snaps that season that lightened things up. These kids aren’t stupid and they know when a player is either helping or in this case hurting it as Browne was.
From there we won two straight game beginning with beating a rather weak 4-3 Duke team (24-17 score) and then a good 5-3 Virginia where we left Heinz Field with an impressive 31-14 win. That put us at 4-5 and a decent shot at getting to a even 6-6 season. All we had to do was beat lowly 1-8 North Carolina at home then keep our fingers crossed that we could upset one of our last two opponents either VT or Miami.
The football gods are funny though, aren’t they? Especially when it comes to their handling of Pitt football. Instead of leaving the NC game as victors and possessing a 5-5 record we crapped the bed completely and were beaten 34-31 by a gods-favored Tarheel team on a come-from-behind TD pass by NC with 6:18 left and us having a chance to drive for at least a tying field goal attempt
Well, that didn’t happen and we sat at 4-6 going into those last two matches.
Against a strong VT team we traded scores and played them pretty straight up – mostly because the coaching staff actually felt their collective crotches and realized they did have sets of balls enough to go with true Freshman Kenny Pickett and sit down the ineffective DiNucci.
Here is how that switch happened and it reinforces my belief that Pat Narduzzi is just scared as hell of turning the ball over. In most cases that is the way to go – but we’ll discuss later in this article why that was a bad belief in the course of this season.
At the 5:43 mark of the 1st quarter Ben DiNucci tossed a nice 13 yard TD to Rafael Araujo-Lopes to tie the game at 7-7. However on our very next possession DiNucci threw an INT that lead directly to a Tech FG and the 10-7 lead.
Exit DiNucci stage left; at 11:15 of the 2nd quarter enter Pickett stage right… and for the remainder of the season.
Pickett put up pretty gaudy passing stats for the remaining three quarters of play and kept us right in the game until a poorly play-called series at the end of the game after he threw a 75 yard pass to Weah who was downed at the VT one yard line. I do not think Pitt fans will forget what happened there anytime soon. We missed a fade route on the 1st down play then called three dives by Hall into the middle of the highly efficient VT defensive line.
Look – when a team’s defense is holding your running game to 55 yards on 27 attempts for a 2.0 average… and on the other hand your QB has been passing at a 10.5 yard per attempt clip and racking up 248 yards… and you have only 1:02 left to play with no timeouts left… do you run three times knowing that the clock keeps running on rushing plays but stops on incompletions?
Yes! Why not!
Of course that is what we did and thus lost this heartbreaker. Had we pulled that win out and really we should have, we’d have been 5-6 going into the Miami game with a semi-decent chance at a 6-6 bowl bid season.
Remember those football gods? They stabbed us in the back with that NC game then twisted the knife in a bit more with the last second VT loss then said “OK, enough is enough with Pitt… who else needs f*cking around with?” and forgot about us completely for the Miami game – which was the ultimate break we needed.
So without a doubt I feel that Friday’s game was shot through with positive and euphoric memories made that way by good coaching on the sidelines and strong and effective work from the Panthers on the field of play. It all came together for a 24-14 upset at Heinz Field that was made all the better because it was done against a strong ACC team that has pretty much had our number in recent years.
Let me set a stage here: I watched that game with my 102 year old aunt in Wilmington NC – she’s a Pitt class of 1926 undergrad and who finished her Pitt Masters in 1927. BTW, she is as sharp mentally as anyone on here, which while that might not be a great endorsement considering our POV commenters, she hasn’t lost one iota of memory or intelligence. Along with her were my four cousins who I love dearly even though they are crazy as loons.
My aunt is all that is left from my original Kohberger ancestors, all my parents, aunts and uncles have passed on but her, so I spend Thanksgiving there every year. She is a crazy Pitt fan and you can hear stories from her about those true football giants and great Pitt seasons of the ’20 and ’30s that we all now just discuss as historical figures. Pretty far-out stories also – those guys back then we certainly not choirboys and she was a knock-out beautiful flapper (who was also later a highly decorated WWII WAVE Navy Commander, Intelligence Branch).
As is traditional we do a college football pool every year and this year I took Miami over Pitt flat-out (no point spread). My cousins really came down hard on me for that – Southerners have different ideas about loyalty than we Yankees do I believe – but I stuck with that as I’m sure did 90% of Pitt fans everywhere.
My cousins all went to NC or NC State so when they, collectively appalled, asked how I could bet against my team I said – “Look we lost to NC, ‘isn’t that a good enough reason?” and that they understood that but still didn’t like it.
Listen – Pitt was an underdog in that game for a reason… but aren’t we glad games aint’ played on paper!
So we watched the game – drank and ate and drank and yelled at the TV as other fans do and all game, every time Pitt made a good play, my cousins would turn and point a disappointed accusing finger at me. All except my aunt who would put up her bony 102 year old hand and say “Remember this is Pitt – the game isn’t over“. She knew that in the long, long history of Pitt football things are never over until they are over. But boy was she happy when that final whistle blew.
Aside note: We were watching the Pitt WVU holiday game back in 2011 when she turned to me and said “Our QB really isn’t any good, is he?” and she never spoke that way about individual Pitt players… Guess who was at QB? That’s right – Tino Sunseri. We lost that one though 21-20.
I really hope she’s around to watch Pickett play out his Pitt career. Amazing woman.
As the Miami game played on some things became obvious – we shut them down defensively and in turn played the best 60 minute game of our season.
We made the best of the field positions we were given… with our QB making more risky throws on in-patterns and a slant or two and hitting receivers inside a small target box – he is so very accurate. And truth be told that final score wasn’t at all indicative of the ass-whipping we applied to the Hurricanes’ rather ample backsides… we owned that game from start to finish.
But at the same time I personally had strong misgivings watching Kenny Pickett play that exciting and effective brand of football because I have known he was capable of it and understood that if our head coach been a forward-looking and gutsy leader we would have had better play from our football team all season long had Pickett been given the starting job out of fall camp.
There is not one question in my mind that his play would have surpassed anything we saw from the other two QBs who played before him – none whatsoever.
And before you puff up the lungs to counterpoint that statement let me say with 100% sincerity and belief that easily could have happened, especially given the immediately apparent low quality of talent from the other three viable QBs on the roster.
DiNucci was (is still) a career back-up QB who has a low talent ceiling. I had written last year that the only way he’d ever see the starting job was through injuries as was the case in reality. Thomas MacVitte was a reach scholarship given to a one-year HS QB who’s best thing going for him was the fact that he played for perennial powerhouse Moeller High School in Cincinnati. I wrote that he’d never take a starting snap at Pitt and that is the case.
Because Pat Narduzzi loves transfer players he landed a four-year bust in Max Browne from USC based on, as far as anyone can tell, his 5* recruiting rating and as anyone who read this blog can attest to I was loud and clear in the spring on the assessment of him that he’d be a bust for us also, as he was – the Rice game aside. He just didn’t have the arm or the head to play D1 ball.
So the truth is that Kenny Pickett arrived at the Southside practice facility as the most talented and game-ready QB Pitt had on roster. You can listen to all the excuse making Narduzzi and the media do on this subject and I will tell you flat-out that the people who know football, and who I talked to about this subject, all agree that Pickett would have played as well right out of the gate against YSU and the other teams on schedule and he did later in the season when he finally got the starting nod.
I’m reading all these newspaper articles and blog sites who are writing these uber-positive articles about Pickett’s play and I’m literally laughing at all of them. Especially when they write things like “Pitt has found a QB!” or “Pickett Surprises in Late Season Play” or some such because it was so damned apparent that he was the best QB by far and everyone but the coaching staff knew it.
But let me backtrack here – I believe Narduzzi did know it but was afraid to play a true FR regardless of that young man’s talent level. That was an unacceptable risk on his part and he wasn’t going to take it.
Let me show you in player’s own words from this morning’s Post-Gazette article...
His excellence was highlighted in memorable moments. There were the darts he threw across the middle to his receivers, the kind of passes that would have given him even more yards were it not for some untimely drops. There was his first touchdown of the day, when he scampered in space and dived across the goal line while absorbing a punishing hit from a defender.
“The crazy part about it is he’s been making those plays since he’s been here,” defensive end Dewayne Hendrix.
“We always knew he had the capability of doing it. The coaches just gave him a shot, and he made the best of it.”
The bolded part is my emphasis but this is what I have been hearing from people who have watched full practices since the spring. I wrote back in April that I had an extended 60 minute viewing opportunity in a closed spring practice and that I spent the whole time watching our QBs.
It was, even at that early stage, so obvious that Pickett stood out high above the others but what was even more intriguing is that you couldn’t put a finger on just why he did.
Of course his arm was the best on the roster – by far – and his poise was that of an older player but there were intangibles in watching him that literally gave me a weird feeling that I was watching a kid who was going to play far above his HS ratings or fans expectations.
I had the same feeling in reverse when during Paul Chryst’s open practices we could watch Chad Voytik in pre-season action. I knew right away that media and fan expectations were way too high for him and that he’d never be more than an average-at-best Pitt QB. So knowing how that turned out to be the case it reinforced my thoughts on Pickett.
Look – every Pitt fan knew that we were up against a very hard first four games – FCS YSU excluded. But Penn State, OK State and Georgia Tech were most likely going to be losses anyway and that is the perfect time to look clearly at the QB trouble spot in your team and find the guts to roll the dice knowing that the caliber of kid you have at hand would not be overwhelmed by tough circumstances.
That isn’t how Pat Narduzzi is built though. For as well as he does in getting his players up for big games, and that is clearly his strongest trait as the Pitt HC, he just isn’t very good at forward thinking. And forward thinking back in April and again in August would have prepared for Pickett to have taken QB1 snaps all through the offseason and thus be ready to step into D1 action.
I honestly believe we would have seen the exact level of production in the beginning of the season as we did at the end from Pickett. He is that mature beyond his years and that was the intangible I felt at that spring practice. But Narduzzi makes a two-deep and sticks with it come hell or high water and that’s what he did. When asked after Browne went down if he considered Pickett stepping in then as the starter and he said ‘ No. Ben is the next man up on the two deep and that’s how we do it’ to paraphrase.
But when you look at DiNucci’s production and at the W-L record of the games he played in you can see some would have turned out differently had a better QB been playing.
In those four losses none were blowouts save possibly the GT game with their great running attack. But the other three Syracuse, NC State and NC could easily have been wins with better QB play.
And QB play doesn’t always revolve around stats either.
At no time during DiNucci’s play this season did I feel his presence in the lineup clearly elevated the others around him. We did however see that writ large as soon as Pickett stepped on the field in his true relief of DiNucci. The offense was sharper, the pass blocking was better knowing the OL had a QB behind them who wasn’t afraid to step into the pocket and try riskier throws.
And the I believe defense played better in knowing that the offense had a real chance to win the games as long as the defense held up their end of the bargain. I’m not sure they felt that way with either Browne or DiNucci on the other side of the ball..
In that regard I truly believe we shot ourselves in the foot and missed a valid opportunity at another winning season. We easily could have had seven or eight wins on the year with Kenny Pickett at the helm.
If I was giving grades on the coaching staff for the season, and I’m about to, here’s what I’ll write:
Our defensive coordinator gets a “D” again. Look, we played better later in the season due to our young defenders getting game day experience – not because Josh Conklin did anything different in his planning or coaching to make it happen. i stand by my statements about his future with Pitt. He should be gone right after LOI Day.
Our offensive Coordinator gets a “C” in my book. I don’t think he was a bad as some fans do – I feel he is truly handcuffed in his work in two ways. First off Narduzzi is so risk averse regarding turnovers I think it severely limits what he allows the OC to playcall. Narduzzi just doesn’t trust offenses and QBs enough as a HC to allow the riskier passing routes that define great offenses –
With this route tree you see that we hardly ever called the “in” routes – no Post patterns, no Hooks, no Intermediate or Deep Slants and no Under routes… nothing really that would put the receivers in the proximity of more than one defender. And where were the TES in the passing game?
Last season Orndoff and Parrish combined for 39 catches for 657 yards at a 16.8 ypc average and 6 TDs.
This year Flanagan and Clark had 33 catches for 282 yards and with 8.8 ypc and only 1 TD. You can’t tell me we couldn’t have used them more in the passing game especially since Browne and DiNucci were terrible on any throws over 15 yards – those two QBs needed the TEs out there.
OC Shawn Watson might have wanted to call those riskier plays but who knows? I think he was dissuaded from doing so until the last two games when Pickett was inserted and showed that his arm was strong enough, his release quick enough and his accuracy good enough to throw into traffic.
We could have and should have had that all season.
Secondly Watson was saddled with Canada’s offensive legacy of scoring 41.5 ppg last year and Narduzzi thrust that full playbook onto Watson expecting somewhat similar results. But we didn’t have Conner, Peterman, Orndoff, Bisnowaty or Dorian Johnson manning the key position like Canada had and trying to play like we still did hurt us… especially with the inept Browne and DiNucci under center.
Our Head coach gets a “C+” on the year mainly on the strength of the big win over Miami, otherwise I’d give him a “C”.
I would love that a win over a top ranked ACC team like Clemson last season and Miami this year actually meant something to Pitt when it comes to getting close to a divisional or conference championship but that hasn’t happened under Narduzzi.
What those wins are, and this is reality folks, are nice to have for pride and morale but really mean not all that much where the rubber meets the road. I don’t buy into moral victories or blowing up the impact of wins. Miami was a fantastic game to watch, was a wonderful way for the kids to end their season and for the seniors on the team to bow out on… but that’s all it was – a feel good win.
Much like Pitt fans were saying that the PSU and Clemson wins (along with a nice 8-5 record) would really boost the program and especially Pitt’s recruiting we saw that dream deflate rather rapidly. It certainly didn’t do anything to help this 2018’s poor 61st ranked recruiting class.
And I think this win will be the same way – something great and fun to look back on but not much of a program changer at all. No, it is up to the coaching staff and the athletic department to make that happen, not any individual win.
We’ll do some forecasting the 2018 season article over the off-season where we’ll all talk about the “what may happen” issues but I’ll close this 2017 recap with this.
Pat Narduzzi has not learned how to separate the fact that he is a current head coach and in charge of everything from his past of being a successful full-time Defensive Coordinator. Now is the time to make sweeping changes knowing that you have a roster of kids who can win games for you… all they need is clear and decisive leadership from the HC down through the coordinators and the position coaches.
If it is broken, and boy we still have aspects of the team that sure are broken, then have the sand to face that fact and make hard decisions.
And above all Narduzzi has to understand that great college football minds have the ability to accept the unknown and it’s vagaries and make that work for them. But he cannot now do that and he hasn’t been able to but for real high level success he has to change. If he can modify his outlook to do these two things, combined with his ability to get kids to play hard for him as they did all year, he might have the makings of a championship coach at Pitt.
Now is the time to strike and take a losing season and make things really happen the next year. I believe we can do it – I do, but not within the model he’s shown over the last three years. Coaching too conservatively because that is your comfort zone and playing risk too close to the vest doesn’t cut it… not in today’s college football game and the way it is played.