Defense can’t be counted on to bail out Panthers every week

The+Panthers+ended+their+three-game+winning+streak+with+the+loss+to+NC+State+on+Saturday.+

Kaycee Orwig | Assistant Visual Editor

The Panthers ended their three-game winning streak with the loss to NC State on Saturday.

By Henry Jackson, Staff Writer

It’s been said that all good things must come to an end, and NC State put a quite sudden end last Saturday to Pitt’s glamorous season-opening run. The Wolfpack delivered a shocking 30-29 upset under the gloomy gray skies at Heinz Field.

Although NC State’s victory may have at first appeared stunning, in retrospect, such a loss was inevitable. Every single one of Pitt’s ACC games have been decided by a single score, and with the offensive effort providing little support, it was really only a matter of time until the Panthers’ star-studded defense slipped up and couldn’t salvage a game.

The time of reckoning came Saturday, and the outmatched Wolfpack’s sheer effort proved the deciding factor. From the opening kickoff until the final seconds of regulation, NC State simply played hungrier, and it was the Wolfpack’s discipline that ultimately gave them the edge over the sluggish Panthers.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi pegged blame on both himself and the entire program, vowing to improve next week.

“Everybody in our football team has a part in a loss, including me, every coach and every player, and that’s just kind of how it goes,” Narduzzi said. “Kids are hurt. Kids are hurt bad in the locker room, but we’ll rebound and stick together and come back next week against Boston College.”

Like the two games before it, Saturday’s battle was decided in the trenches, but this time, Pitt’s opponent escaped. NC State quarterback Devin Leary avoided pressure and masterfully conducted a 336-yard passing attack.

Naturally, NC State’s offensive success was the result of better strategy — whereas Syracuse and Louisville wasted time trying to pound the ball in on the ground, the Wolfpack bypassed Pitt’s defensive line and went straight to the air.

There, the Wolfpack’s larger receivers managed to easily get open against the undersized Pitt corners, allowing Leary to make quick passes before the pocket collapsed.

In a sense, it almost seems as if NC State’s offense was perfectly crafted to face Pitt. Knowing the strength of the Panther defensive line, the Wolfpack simply relied on the height and physicality of their receivers, using air-raid tactics to quickly advance the ball downfield.

But the most disappointing part of the loss was undoubtedly the resurfacing of last year’s struggles with penalties. Pitt committed an average of 7.4 penalties per game last year, 13th worst in the country. Saturday was far worse. The Panthers were flagged 13 times for a devastating 125 yards — 110 of those coming on defense — and the extra yardage gave State’s offense a much-needed boost.

“We gave them the game. We kept having penalties we should not have had,” redshirt senior defensive end Patrick Jones II said. “We should have did better in practice with it. That’s something we’ve got to go in next week and just work on. We can’t have that no more.”

Needless to say, such a statistic is deeply concerning for a veteran lineup. Many expected the Panthers to resolve their penalty issues in the offseason, and the team simply cannot afford an Achilles heel in the form of a yellow flag. If Pitt is to win more close games this season, it will have to play with discipline.

As far as the offense goes, there’s little left to be said. Pitt has shown a knack this season for making other defenses look good, and NC State’s injury-riddled roster was no exception.

Most painful was Pitt’s inability to score in the red zone. As it has in past games, the Panthers’ inability to leave short-yardage situations with touchdowns proved fatal Saturday.

“There’s things that we need to do better when we get down there and we’ve focused on it more than we ever have really to be honest with you,” Narduzzi said. “We had our opportunities, and we’ve just got to finish.”

In order to revive Pitt’s red zone offense — or perhaps even Pitt’s offense in general — the o-line must improve. After four games, the team has yet to establish a balanced run game, due mostly to the lack of push at the line of scrimmage. The line is equally ineffective on pass plays, with senior quarterback Kenny Pickett often running for his life as the gaps become veritable turnstiles of opposing defenders.

That said, bright spots remained in Saturday’s dismal performance. Pickett shone, passing for 411 yards and scoring two touchdowns on the ground despite suffering a nasty head-to-head hit early in the game. Redshirt senior kicker Alex Kessman was also reliable, making all three of his field goal attempts.

While Pitt’s performance against NC State was disappointing, its season is in no way ruined. In fact, considering how terribly the team played for much of the game, fans have reason to hope for better. After all, when Pitt avoids penalties and plays aggressively on defense, it is the top-25 team who played in games one through three.

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