Three takeaways from Pitt’s OT homecoming win


Bader Abdulmajeed | Staff Photographer

Pitt’s defensive line celebrates redshirt sophomore Therran Coleman’s overtime interception against Syracuse Saturday afternoon.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Pitt’s football team notched a much-needed win Saturday, beating out the Syracuse Orange 44-37 in an overtime thriller at Heinz Field. The homecoming victory snapped a two-game losing streak for the Panthers, bringing their record to an even 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the ACC.

It was a pivotal win for the Panthers at a time when they needed such a performance to silence the naysayers. Now officially halfway through the season, it’s becoming clearer what we can expect to see from Pitt on a weekly basis. Here’s what Saturday’s game revealed about the team.

Ollison and Hall are the entire offense

The Panthers found themselves trailing 37-34 with 5:53 left in the game, facing a 75-yard drive to take the lead or tie. Common football ideology would dictate that a gun-slinging quarterback lead his team down the field, playing the role of hero with clutch completions and poise in the face of pressure.

But by that point in the game, head coach Pat Narduzzi made the decision to just give up on the passing game entirely. And for good reason — sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett finished with a pedestrian 11 completions on 20 attempts for 137 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Instead of even trying to feign any sort of passing attack, the team finally made the decision to fully embrace the beastly senior running back tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Pitt ran the ball on 11 straight plays, with eight carries for Ollison and three for Hall. Even facing a fourth-and-three with the game on the line, Pitt’s coaching staff didn’t stray from the formula. They dialed up a handoff to Ollison, who scrapped his way to the first-down marker. The methodical, hard-nosed drive culminated 10 plays later when sophomore kicker Alex Kessman made a 45-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.

Ollison and Hall continued to carry the team in overtime, once again running the ball every single play. Hall scored from three yards out for the deciding touchdown — his second of the day — and rushed for 107 yards on 17 carries. Remarkably, that was the lesser performance in Pitt’s backfield, with Ollison rushing 24 times for 192 yards and a touchdown.

It was a monster day for the duo, who willed the team to victory with their Herculean efforts. However, it overshadowed what has become a worrying trend — the lack of production in the passing game. After Saturday, the Panthers now rank 13th out of 14 ACC teams with a paltry 149.2 passing yards per game.

Pickett was hailed as the team’s savior after leading Pitt to a major upset over undefeated Miami last year. But this season, he’s largely failed to meet expectations. Pickett has yet to throw for more than 200 yards in a game this season, and his 149.2 yards per game ranks above only the lowly Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who essentially don’t pass at all.

Pickett certainly can’t take all the blame for the poor numbers — offensive coordinator Shawn Watson runs a highly conservative offense that doesn’t allow throwers to thrive, and the play of the Panthers’ offensive line has been subpar, with Pickett often lacking sufficient time and space to make quality throws. Regardless of who’s to blame, 149.2 passing yards per game simply isn’t going to cut it against quality teams.

So for now, Ollison and Hall will continue to shoulder the load of Pitt’s offense. If Saturday’s game was any indication, the two could be in for a very heavy workload, with the opportunity to post some gaudy numbers. That style may work against average teams like Syracuse, but don’t expect the Panthers to compete with the big dogs if they can’t move the ball through the air.

Kessman is good at kicking

Before Saturday’s game, it wasn’t quite clear if Alex Kessman was good at kicking footballs through the uprights. Kessman made 11 of his 19 attempts in 2017 for an iffy 58 percent conversion rate, although he showed big-leg potential with a 56-yard make. This season, Kessman had only made one of his two attempted field goals.

But on Saturday, Kessman showed the world that he is, indeed, good at kicking. Very good, as it turns out.

The sophomore broke out in a big way, setting the record for longest field goal at Heinz Field by drilling a 54-yarder in the second quarter. That record stood for about 15 minutes, as Kessman one-upped himself by making a 55-yarder on the Panthers’ ensuing possession. Even more impressive was the fact that both kicks came during a rainstorm that would later cause a weather delay.

Those field goals kept Pitt in the game, but Kessman’s biggest kick of the day came at the end of regulation. The Panthers trailed 37-34, and drove to the edge of Kessman’s field goal range to set up a 45-yard attempt. With the game on the line, Kessman stepped up and sent the game-tying attempt through the uprights for his third make of the day, all coming from 45 yards or more.

The Panthers would go on to win in overtime, and along with Ollison and Hall, Kessman was the biggest reason why. He checked off all the boxes you want to see in a kicker: A strong leg, clutch ability and consistency.

Pitt better hope that Saturday’s performance was more than just an anomaly, because if Kessman plays this way throughout the rest of the season then he could be a dangerous weapon on a largely anemic offense. It’s rare to find a competent kicker at the college level, but the Panthers may have that rare commodity.

Pitt is not a defensive team

Entering the season, most media outlets — including The Pitt News — predicted that Pitt’s defense was due for an improved year. After all, the unit was bringing back nine returning starters from 2017, with a core of senior talent including last season’s leading tackler, linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu.

Through six games in 2018, it seems safe to say that we were wrong. The Panthers’ defense has been a sieve, allowing an average of 38 points per game. That ranks 110th in the nation out of 130 teams.

It was more of the same versus Syracuse, with Pitt allowing 37 points and emerging with the win thanks to a few freak kicks from Kessman. It looks like this is the sort of production we can expect to see from the defense on a weekly basis, as they’ve now let four of their six opponents score 37 points or more.

The problem is, unlike most teams that allow that many points, Pitt doesn’t possess the offensive prowess to win in a shootout. They rank 82nd in scoring offense with 24.6 points per game, and with the aforementioned lack of passing game, the Panthers are not equipped to come back when they face a deficit. That means the defense absolutely must improve in the second half of the season if Pitt wants to be competitive.

Some might make the excuse that the Panthers’ defensive numbers are skewed because they had to face some of the best offenses in college football, including top teams like Penn State and Central Florida. However, things won’t get any easier during the next six games, as the team faces No. 5 Notre Dame next and No. 16 Miami in the season finale, both on the road. If the Panthers can’t stop teams from scoring at will, it’s going to be a long season for Pitt fans.