Missed opportunities doom Pitt in 30-14 loss to Virginia

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Missed plays. Missed opportunities. Poor execution. 

These were the sentiments echoed repeatedly by Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi and his players following Saturday night’s opening 30-14 loss to ACC Coastal foe Virginia at Heinz Field. Despite the somewhat lopsided final score, it was evident that the Panthers were just a few plays away from achieving a different result.

“We didn’t make enough plays,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We missed throws, we dropped balls, we don’t protect the quarterback… and it starts with me. I need to do a better job of getting them ready.”

Perhaps you can chalk it up as first-game jitters, or part of the learning curve as Pitt’s offense adapted to new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Whatever the case, there was something slightly off about the Panthers throughout the night, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

On Pitt’s second play of the game, junior quarterback Kenny Pickett uncorked a deep ball to redshirt junior wideout Taysir Mack. Mack had a step on his defender, but the ball sailed over his head. Scenes like this happened several more times throughout the night. When Pickett later delivered an accurate pass to Mack, with Pitt trailing 16-14 in the third quarter, he dropped what should have been an easy 40-yard completion. On the very next play, Pickett threw an interception that put Virginia in scoring position.

“There was plays there to be made and we just didn’t make them,” Pickett reiterated.

But for two touchdown drives in the second quarter, Pitt’s offense looked unstoppable. One took up seven plays and 85 yards, and the other saw Pickett account for 65 of his team’s 80 yards on a methodical 14-play march. On its other 10 drives combined, however, the Panthers managed just 98 yards.

“We showed glimpses but, you show glimpses, you’re not going to win the game,” Pickett said. “You’ve got to be consistent all game.”

Pickett notably took on greater responsibility under Whipple’s pass-heavy scheme, though the results were mixed. He threw 41 times — more than in any game last season — but completed only 21 passes for 185 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The running game didn’t help much, as junior running back AJ Davis led all rushers with eight carries for 25 yards and a touchdown.

Defensively, the Panthers played a better game than the score would indicate. All three of Virginia’s touchdown drives started with short fields  — at the 19 yard line after a blocked punt, the 29 yard line after a Pickett interception and the 27 yard line after a missed fourth-down try. Pitt excelled when given a full field to work with, forcing the Cavaliers to settle for three field goals.

Defensive standouts included redshirt sophomore defensive end Deslin Alexandre, who filled in admirably for injured teammate Rashad Weaver. He tallied six tackles, one sack and led Pitt with 1.5 tackles for loss. Senior safety Damar Hamlin led the Panthers with seven tackles, but after the game took responsibility for what he believed was a disappointing performance.

“We just didn’t execute how we were supposed to,” Hamlin said. “…we take pride in trying to be the best defense in the ACC, best defense in the country. So whatever situation we’re put in we feel like we can come up out of it.”

To start the game, Whipple immediately let fans know that this wouldn’t be the same run-centric, clock-milking system as in 2018 — on its first play, Pitt shifted out of the I-formation and into a trick alignment with linemen split out wide. The play resulted in an incomplete pass, but the Panthers sprinted back to the line as part of their new hurry-up approach. Whipple’s message was clear — this was not going to be Pitt’s traditional offense.

The Panthers’ new-look offense struggled to gain ground early on, going three-and-out on each of their first two drives. Pitt didn’t attempt a single running play during this time, and Pickett started the game an ugly 1-7 passing for three yards.

Virginia, on the other hand, came out showing why it was picked to win the ACC Coastal. Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins played a nearly impeccable first drive, routinely fending off pressure from Pitt’s defense to complete passes in tight windows. After letting Perkins lead his team down the field, Pitt’s defense finally stepped up with a crucial third-down sack at its own 12 yard line. Junior kicker Brian Delaney netted the ensuing 39-yard field goal, putting Virginia up 3-0.

Pitt continued its nightmare start to the game after its second three-and-out, as redshirt sophomore punter Kirk Christodoulou saw his punt get blocked. Virginia took over with prime field position at the Panther 19 yard line and wasted no time in scoring. A two-yard touchdown pass from Perkins to senior tailback Chris Sharp gave the Cavaliers a 10-0 lead just nine minutes into the game.

After exchanging unsuccessful drives, Pitt’s offense finally showed its big-play potential after taking over on downs at its own 15 yard line. Pickett found junior running back AJ Davis on a short swing pass and Davis did the rest, outracing Virginia’s defense down the boundary line before getting pushed out at the Cavalier 20. With Virginia’s defense on its heels, Whipple’s quick offense kept the pressure on. Two more Pickett passes moved Pitt down to the 2 yard line and Davis punched it in from there, drawing the Panthers within three points after the kick from redshirt junior Alex Kessman.

Virginia got as far as Pitt’s 23 yard line on the next drive, but Pitt’s defensive line continued to be its saving grace. The Panthers’ front seven pressured Perkins and forced three consecutive throwaways, leading the Cavaliers to settle for another field goal. In the first half alone, Pitt sacked Perkins three times and held him to negative four rushing yards on 10 attempts.

Pitt’s offense strung together its first true scoring drive just before the half, methodically moving from its own 20 yard line to the end zone over five minutes and 34 seconds. Pickett finally started looking like a quarterback capable of carrying the load in a spread offense, completing six of seven passes for 42 yards and adding 23 rushing yards on three attempts. The drive culminated with Pickett finding redshirt senior wideout Tre Tipton on a three-yard out route in the end zone, giving Pitt a 14-13 lead just before the end of the first half.

After a third Delaney field goal saw Virginia regain the lea at 16-14, Pitt sought to answer back with a scoring drive. Instead, Mack’s crucial drop, followed by Pickett’s interception on the next play, gave Virginia the ball at Pitt’s 25. What could’ve been a 40-yard Pitt gain quickly turned into a Cavalier scoring opportunity.

Perkins finally started to show the running talent that saw him rush for over 1,000 yards in 2018. He scrambled for nine yards to pick up a first down, then rushed twice more to set up a third and five at Pitt’s 13. This time doing damage with his arm, Perkins found senior receiver Hasise Dubois for a touchdown, giving Virginia a 23-14 lead with 8:23 left in the third quarter.

Needing points on the scoreboard to stay in the game, Pitt’s offense started a drive at its own 10 yard line still trailing 23-14 with 12:42 remaining. The Panthers started to generate momentum, with Pickett picking up one third-down conversion with his legs and passing to Mack for another. But things turned south after Pitt reached midfield. The Cavaliers sacked Pickett on first and second down, setting up a third and 23. Desperate to keep the drive alive, Pickett threw a pass into heavy traffic where it was intercepted by junior safety Joey Blount.

Fans slowly started to file out of the stadium as Virginia’s offense milked clock to secure its nine-point advantage. The Cavaliers meandered into field goal range, where Delaney missed a 40-yard attempt. With only 4:23 left in the game, Pitt once again couldn’t get out of its own territory and handed the ball back after an unsuccessful fourth down attempt. Virginia sophomore Wayne Taulapapa tacked on a junk-time touchdown run, making the final score 30-14 Cavaliers. 

“If we look in the rear view mirror we’re in big trouble, so we need to look forward,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll put this thing to rest tomorrow afternoon and we’ll move on to Ohio and work on them. It won’t linger.”

The Panthers will look to rebound next Saturday, when they host the Ohio Bobcats at 11 a.m.