‘They are who we think they are’: WMU loss mars hopeful start for Pitt

The+Pitt+Panthers+%282-1%2C+0-0+ACC%29+were+defeated+by+the+Western+Michigan+Broncos+%282-1%2C+0-0+MAC%29+on+Saturday+afternoon+in+a+44-41+upset+victory.

Lucas Zheng | Staff Photographer

The Pitt Panthers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) were defeated by the Western Michigan Broncos (2-1, 0-0 MAC) on Saturday afternoon in a 44-41 upset victory.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Sometimes it feels like being a Pitt fan would be easier if they were just plain bad. Right now, the Panthers exist in limbo, never as perennially bad as the Vanderbilts or Kansases of the world, but also far from an equal of the elites. Instead, they float around seven and eight wins with an inexplicable or utterly maddening loss or three sprinkled throughout the season.

One of those seemingly regular letdowns came on Saturday, when Western Michigan marched into Heinz Field and shredded the Panther defense, winning in key moment after key moment on the way to a 44-41 upset victory.

The Panthers struggled mightily on Saturday afternoon against the Broncos to run, defend and play without penalties. Some outstanding individual performances kept them afloat, but were unable to cover for the fact that Pitt was thoroughly outplayed by Western Michigan.

This loss hurts more than just Pitt’s record
After Pitt topped Tennessee on the road last week, they broke an ugly pattern and passed what, on paper, looked like the only formidable test of the non-conference schedule. It looked like they were ready to take the next step and put together a special season. But they came crashing back to earth in week three.

Pitt was not ready to play. The Panthers refused to adjust, committed bone-headed penalties and handled the ball sloppily. They failed to show up and now, even if they turn things around and become the team that was expected entering 2021, the shadow of the WMU game will follow them for the remainder of the year. “If we had just won the Western Michigan game,” will become a common refrain because of the way it marred any momentum Pitt built when they defied recent history by taking down a Power Five non-conference opponent on the road.

This game is, in the grand scheme of things, pretty meaningless. Head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game that there is still an ACC schedule left to play and he’s right, but losing to a MAC team inflicts an added psychological toll on a Power Five team and its fanbase.

Pride was a casualty of Saturday’s game. For a week, fans got to believe this team wouldn’t confirm their worst expectations and seven days later, they are kicking themselves for giving in to the optimism.

The Panthers have bonafide stars in the passing offense

Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has lived up to his preseason hype so far this season. Through three games, he’s on pace to shatter career records in passing yards, completion percentage, passing touchdowns and rushing yards for a single season. He’s also in the top 20 nationally in completions and passer rating.

Pickett recorded a career day against the Broncos, throwing for 382 yards and six touchdowns — a personal, single-game high that doubled his previous ceiling — while using his feet to extend plays and drives. Pickett also passed Dan Marino and Tino Sunseri on the all-time passing yards leaderboard at Pitt with a 67-yard touchdown strike to sophomore receiver Jordan Addison. He almost single-handedly kept the Panthers in the game, matching the Broncos blow-for-blow accounting for every Panthers score.

And Addison had a spectacular day of his own. He caught six passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns — the best single-game touchdown total of his young career, and he hit that mark before halftime. Senior tight end Lucas Krull also continued to be a valuable asset in the red zone. He managed just three catches but two of them were for touchdowns. Junior receiver Jared Wayne didn’t score, but reached the century mark in receiving yards for just the second time in his career and made clutch catches late in the game while the WMU defense was focused on trying to contain Addison.

Pitt will go as far as Pickett and the passing offense does. The aerial attack is a clear strength for the Panthers on that side of the ball. They are the 25th-best offense in the country by yards per game and the 11th-best by points per game, thanks in large part to their nearly 364 pass yards per game.

Coaches and players have said throughout preseason and the first three weeks of the regular season that they want to run the ball better. It’s a noble goal, but Pitt shouldn’t turn to the ground just for its own sake. The game plan is already pass-heavy and every time a big play is needed, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple should put the ball in the hands of Pickett, his leading man.

This secondary is the Achilles’ heel of a good defense

For the second straight week, the Pitt secondary was burned often and didn’t make a shift from their primarily man-to-man defensive scheme. Sophomore receivers Skyy Moore and Corey Crooms caught 19 of their 26 total targets for a combined 285 yards and a pair of touchdowns, beating the Panthers’ top corners — redshirt senior Damarri Mathis and redshirt junior Marquis Williams — early and often.

The Panthers got away with some blown coverages last week against Tennessee because Volunteer quarterbacks were repeatedly inaccurate on deep balls. But against WMU, they had no such luck. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby was deadly accurate, striking for three touchdowns in a span of eight passes. 

The Panthers continued to press the Broncos nonetheless and paid for it dearly. Two-thirds of WMU plays that went for 15 or more yards came through the air. 

One of the calling cards of Narduzzi’s defenses at Pitt has been a tendency to commit more bodies to stopping the run and challenging his defensive backs to win in one-on-one matchups. 

Entering this season, that seemed like a good strategy. It’s been effective in recent years — Williams and Mathis were considered two of the better corners in the conference and redshirt sophomore safety Brandon Hill was considered a rising star. But the unit was instead sloppy on Saturday, responsible for five of the defense’s six penalties and 41 of 42 penalty yards.

It was clear from the get-go that the secondary was going to be one of the weaker arms of this Pitt team, but now they have become an unexpected liability. They will need to improve their play on the backend to support their defensive line and linebacking corps, who is holding opponents under 100 yards per game on the ground so far this year.

Leave a comment.