As redshirt senior quarterback Max Browne hit wide receiver Jester Weah for the game-winning touchdown this Saturday against Youngstown State, Panther fans saw a flash of what made Browne a five-star recruit coming out of high school.
But that wasn’t an accurate representation of Browne’s Panther debut. If anything, it was an outlier.
Throughout the game, Browne looked uncomfortable in the pocket and relied on simple throws to move the offense.
Head Coach Pat Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson didn’t ask Browne to do much in the first half other than a 30 yard completion to tight end Matt Flanagan, since the Panthers relied on their strong running game to wear down the Penguins’ defense.
Quick, screen passes to the outside dominated the team’s passing attack, and Browne got away with staring down his receivers, escaping the first half without a turnover.
This was thanks to the Panthers’ running backs, led by redshirt junior Qadree Ollison. Pitt’s backs ran for a whopping 146 yards in the first half, and the unit’s success gave Browne and his receivers room along the line of scrimmage for short passes.
More than anything, Browne managed the game in the first half, which allowed the offense to exploit the talent deficiency of an non-BCS team whose strategy allowed the underneath passes.
“[Youngstown State was] sitting with two high safeties most of the game, so it was just a simple numbers game, that’s one less guy in the box,” Browne said after the game. “That’s a factor why we had so much success in the run game early.”
Still, he didn’t face much pressure and wasn’t tested often. In the second half of the game, he showed his weaknesses.
In the second half, the Penguins began to figure out the Panthers’ rushing attack, forcing the offense to become more pass heavy down the stretch. Watson tried to go back to the short passes from the first half, but Youngstown had adjusted to that too.
The Panthers eventually changed their attack, relying on Browne to make more complicated throws. From there on, he looked very out of sorts.
After a blocked punt in the fourth quarter gave Pitt the ball at the Youngstown 4-yard line, the Panthers had an opportunity to grab a three-possession lead and put the game out of reach. Faced with a third and goal, Browne held onto the ball too long and took a sack that backed up the Panthers seven yards. Freshman Alex Kessman then came in and missed a 28-yard field goal.
Later on, with the Panthers’ lead down to seven, Browne again stayed in the pocket too long, taking another third down sack. This time, he fumbled, and the Penguins were set up for their game-tying drive.
If he had hung onto the ball — or even thrown it away and taken an intentional grounding call — the Panthers would have been able to punt it away and pin the Penguins deep in their own end. This would have given the Panthers’ defense a better chance to preserve the lead, and overtime might not have been necessary.
Browne looked nothing like the player he was built up to be coming out of high school. He didn’t deal with the pass rush well and couldn’t find receivers down the field. Still, after the game, he and Narduzzi said they were encouraged with the performance.
“I don’t think it was bad. I think he thinks he played pretty good, as I talked to him after the game,” Narduzzi said. “It’s been over a year since started a game, so you’re going to be a little rusty.”
Despite Browne’s positive self-assessment, his strong overtime performance doesn’t cover up the glaring flaws in his first game as a Panther. The majority of his completions were screen passes, and when forced to air it out, he couldn’t get the job done.
This is the kind of play that someone might expect from an average quarterback — not a 5-star recruit. And next week, the competition gets a lot tougher as the Panthers take on No. 6 Penn State. Pitt’s chances likely hinge on Browne’s ability to carry the passing game, and after this performance, it doesn’t look good, no matter how much he wants to beat his new rival.
“I know I’m supposed to hate them,” Browne said about Penn State after Saturday’s win. “[So] I guess I do hate them.”