Takeaways: Pitt reverted back to its old self against Miami


Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett fumbles the ball during Pitt’s game against Virginia Tech earlier this month.

By Griffin Floyd, Staff Writer

The No. 24 Pitt Panthers (7-5, 6-2 ACC) ended their four-game win streak when they fell to the unranked Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium 24-3 on Saturday. Pitt’s regular season finale was every bit as ugly as the final score suggests and it may have hurt the Panthers’ chances at a premier bowl game.

Morrissey is missed

The loss of starting center Jimmy Morrissey was keenly felt in both the run game and in pass protection on Saturday. Morrissey, the ACC offensive lineman of the week against Virginia Tech, suffered a season-ending ankle injury on a trick play in the final minutes of Pitt’s blowout victory over Wake Forest.

The redshirt sophomore and former walk-on has been a key factor in the Panthers’ success running the football all year, anchoring the offensive line and making gaping holes between the tackles.

With Morrissey absent, Pitt wasn’t able to run the ball up the middle effectively. Morrissey’s absence added with a fast and disciplined Miami defense — ranked second in the FBS in defensive yards and 15th in scoring — resulted in only 69 rushing yards for the Panthers.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s crew had averaged 232.7 yards per game until that point, and without the catalyst of its success, it struggled mightily.

Morrissey’s impact was felt beyond the Panthers’ run game, however — he was also critical in pass blocking and diagnosing blitzes and defensive alignments for quarterback Kenny Pickett.

On Pitt’s first drive of the day, it was clear that blitz pickups would be a challenge for the new-look offensive line when the Hurricanes’ defensive end Joe Jackson faked as if he was dropping into coverage, before rushing forward and sacking Pickett on third down.

Pickett was sacked six times to go along with 14 tackles for a loss — both season highs for the Panthers’ offensive line.

Can’t convert

Against a top-notch defense like the Hurricanes, it’s crucial to get a fast start — but Pitt didn’t score until the third quarter.

The Panthers’ inability to score was in large part due to their inability to convert on third down, going 1-15 on third-down conversions, along with a failed fourth-down attempt as well.

Pitt dominated in total possession, keeping the ball for 35 minutes and 34 seconds. That should have been a recipe for success, but the drives weren’t going anywhere. As such, Miami had plenty of time to practice its punt-return prowess, capitalized by DeeJay Dallas’ 65-yard return for a touchdown to make it 10-0.

Nine of the 15 third downs faced were more than five yards from the line to gain, forcing the offense away from the run game due to penalties, dropped passes, a predictable run game and more sacks.

Senior offensive tackle Alex Bookser has taken some ill-timed penalties this year, and this game was no different. He was called for a face-mask penalty while the Panthers were pinned deep, stopping a drive before it had even begun.

Bookser wasn’t the only veteran to make a mistake, however. In the third quarter, with the game still close, normally sure-handed Maurice Ffrench dropped a wide-open pass for a first down, forcing the Panthers to punt while driving into scoring territory.

Pittsburgh’s mental mistakes on offense should not take away from the performance of the Hurricanes’ defense. Miami’s defense did more than its part, stopping the run and pressuring Pickett into making mistakes or taking sacks.

Pitt didn’t come to play

The biggest factor in Pitt’s loss was something less easy to pin on a specific play or individual — the Panthers were playing in Miami, on senior day, a year after they had ruined the Hurricanes’ shot at a 12-0 season and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs with a stunning upset.

The Hurricanes have been in a tailspin, relatively speaking, since that game last year — going 7-8 and falling from the second-ranked team in the country to not being in the poll at all.

It’s clear the rematch had been circled on Miami’s calendar for several months.

Pitt was playing for nothing besides the chance at a better bowl game — an important thing, to be sure — but the game simply did not carry the same emotional weight for Pitt as it did for Mark Richt and his Miami squad.

According to The Miami Herald, senior defensive back Jaquan Johnson gave a speech before kickoff that had the whole team, defense especially, fired up — and they played like it.

“The first game was like when we got started to get in quicksand when we lost to LSU,” Johnson said in the post game press conference, detailing the sinking feeling the team had. “But we pulled our way out of it because we were united. We didn’t fight one another. We helped one another get out of this quicksand.”

Despite their trying season, the Hurricanes were able to stay motivated for each and every game, even though they had already punched their ticket to a bowl game.

The same can’t be said for the Panthers. The game against Miami really was sort of a dry run for the ACC Championship game on Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina, as both the Tigers and Hurricanes have fast, big, athletic defenses and stifling — albeit streaky — offenses. Pickett and his teammates couldn’t handle the Hurricanes, but it remains to be seen how they will rebound against Clemson.

Pitt will likely fall out of the rankings following the ugly loss, but there is still hope — unranked Panther teams have had a stellar track record against the No. 2 team in the country in the past couple years. With Clemson ranked No. 2, this year may be no different.