Despite flaws, Pitt handles business in ACC opener

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Kaycee Orwig | Assistant Visual Editor

First-year wide receiver Jordan Addison is tackled.

By Henry Jackson, Staff Writer

In a defensive showdown where yards were scarce and points were even harder to come by, No. 25 Pitt ultimately took care of business by stifling Syracuse in a misleadingly close 21-10 win on Saturday afternoon.

Predictably, it was Pitt’s defense — the defensive line, most of all — who carried the team. From the opening snap, the Panthers swarmed the Orange backfield, brushing offensive linemen off like flies and making life absolutely miserable in the pocket for quarterback Tommy DeVito.

Running the ball was likewise a struggle, with Syracuse backs rarely even making it back to the line of scrimmage unscathed. Pitt’s defense simply suffocated the Orange, leaving only the bare minimum to be done by the Panther offense.

And the bare minimum was the best Pitt’s offense could manage, with offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s unit struggling mightily against Syracuse’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme. Unlike last week’s lengthy highlight reel versus overmatched Austin Peay, the Panthers seemed unable to build any momentum Saturday.

Apart from several timely strikes thrown by senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, the Panthers were largely unable to move the football. The special teams play was also horrendous.

And head coach Pat Narduzzi was displeased with his team’s execution.

“Obviously we’re 1-0 in the ACC and the goal was to come out here today and be 1-0,” Narduzzi said after the game. “It’s a win. It was a lot uglier than I would like it to be and I told the team afterwards, I was just disappointed more in the penalties that we had. Just some stuff that you don’t expect to happen at all.

Perhaps the most worrisome development Saturday was the continued struggles of redshirt senior kicker Alex Kessman. Kessman was unable to connect on two attempts and saw a third attempt fumbled before it could even reach his foot. Pitt has proven capable of playing through such mistakes for the time being, but an inconsistent kicker could turn into a major Achilles heel as the team faces stronger competition.

On offense, the Panthers seemed equally unprepared to face the ACC’s finest. Similar to last week, none of the four running backs to see the field made much of an impression. The O-line was unsteady at best, failing to give Pickett enough time in the pocket and struggling to provide the necessary push on run plays.

Such a performance raises obvious concern, considering Pitt’s line boasts four returning starters. Their penalty-prone play Saturday resembled last year’s untested lineup.

Outside the trenches, the Panthers looked slightly better. Pickett was steady, going 25-36 passing with two touchdowns, while also scoring another on the ground. First-year wide receiver Jordan Addison continued to shine, making timely plays and picking up 57 yards including a touchdown. Redshirt senior tight end Lucas Krull made his much-awaited 2020 debut, but failed to deliver much beyond a single completion.

Pitt’s offensive performance was too inconsistent to be dominant in the ACC. The Panthers couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. Penalties, turnovers and missed kicks exacted a toll at crucial points.

The Panthers also failed to establish a strong run game until the final drive, and the air attack was unable to make up the difference. If such lackluster play continues, Pitt will certainly be in for some rough games against the ACC’s best, which Pickett acknowledged after the game.

 “It was definitely a sloppy game,” Pickett said. “We didn’t play the kind of football we need to play to go where we want to go, but it’s almost a good thing it happened. We persevered, we came and got the win which is all that matters, so we’re gonna learn from the film and come ready to practice this week.”

But if questions remain about the Pitt offense, the defense has answers. By now it is clear the high-powered defense will once again be the Panthers’ calling card. Apart from blown coverage allowing a touchdown early in the game, Pitt imposed its will on the Orange offense all afternoon long.

Star players came through at all the right times, Syracuse was limited to a paltry 171 yards of total offense, and Pitt fans could watch comfortably as their defense decided the game.

Pitt football has no reason to panic just yet. Although the offense failed to impress, the outcome was never in doubt against the outmatched Orange. Fans can remain confident that Pitt will field one of the best defenses in the country each Saturday and hope the offense will do at least enough to secure a victory against any ACC opponent. Kessman will have to improve, but it’s not yet time to give up on the talented kicker.

Pitt’s performance Saturday proved they possess a crucial skill, one they had been missing in mediocre years past — the ability to handle business against an inferior opponent.

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