This season’s Panther football team has certainly not been afraid to make unconventional choices in their game plan, especially when it comes to the quarterback position.
Pat Narduzzi has used two different quarterbacks in every game this season and in Saturday’s 35-17 loss to NC State, he did not stray from that strategy.
What makes this instance against NC State especially interesting, though, was Narduzzi’s choice to call upon a young, new face to be under center and lead the team. Though Narduzzi said it was a part of the plan all along, the choice to take out starting quarterback Ben DiNucci at a crucial point in the game cost the Panthers.
DiNucci was replaced with Kenny Pickett, a true freshman from Oakhurst, N.J. Pickett saw one play against Syracuse last week when DiNucci’s helmet popped off right before the final play, allowing Pickett to enter.
Pickett’s one-pass performance against Syracuse burned his redshirt and hinted at the fact that Pickett was likely to see increased playtime in the near future — this weekend, as it turned out. His number was called with 2:32 left to play in the third quarter.
DiNucci — the de facto starter after Max Browne’s season-ending injury against Syracuse — had been playing well up to that point. He went 13-19 on passing in the first half with 114 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jester Weah. He strung together solid drives for the Panthers against a powerful NC State defence coming into the game with 17 sacks.
After an impressive first half, DiNucci and the Panther offense stalled in the third quarter, with back-to-back punts and a Wolfpack interception. But Pitt was still in a competitive position, down 21-14 to the Wolfpack with the ball and a chance to tie the game. On this crucial drive, Narduzzi decided to put in a quarterback who had a total of one passing attempt in his college career.
Pickett’s first drive saw him rush for four yards and throw an incomplete pass as the Panthers were forced to punt. His next drive early in the fourth quarter was easily his best of the day as he completed three passes to Weah for 23, 11 and 14 yards and led the Panthers to a field goal.
“We did it because the charts tell you to, you’ve got to take the points,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t question that call.”
Pickett was given one more drive — before Narduzzi put DiNucci back in to conclude the game — and his day ended as he completed five of 13 passes for a total of 61 yards and carried four times for 18 yards. Pickett looked decent in his debut — especially for a first-year — but the difference compared to DiNucci was clear.
When Narduzzi replaced his starter, Pitt only found themselves trailing by one touchdown against a top 25 team. Because of the score and DiNucci’s solid performance, it’s questionable why Narduzzi chose to put a quarterback with almost no experience at the helm.
“I thought DiNucci played really good in the first half, we stayed on our plan with him and Pickett,” Narduzzi said. “We really wanted to get Pickett in the first half, but Ben was doing a nice job.”
That is not the time to give a young player valuable time for the sake of experience, especially at a position as crucial as quarterback. DiNucci did a good job of managing the game and keeping the Panthers motivated. They were on track to hang tight, and the change could have been what upended that run.
In a perfect world, any team would be able to win while still giving their younger players game-time experience. Going into the game against NC State, Pitt was sitting at 2-4 and was entering a tough slough of ACC bouts — they are not a team who can afford this sort of move.
Narduzzi wasted no time defending his choice, explaining that he wanted Pickett to have experience on the field before it was too late.
“We’re going to need him somewhere,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t want his first action coming when it has to be.”
Narduzzi giving his young quarterback experience isn’t without benefits, but fans have to wonder why it would have to come at such a crucial point for the team. The Panthers were still in the game and DiNucci was clearly giving the team the best chance to win.