Column | Pitt’s loss to WMU may be the best thing that could have happened

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Lucas Zheng | Staff Photographer

Marquis Williams (14) celebrates with other Panthers during the Pitt vs. WMU football game in September.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Oakland had a different type of buzz after Pitt’s win over Clemson on Saturday. The Victory Lights illuminated the overcast night sky, car horns blared and students were out and about. I got back to my apartment after the game and turned on ESPN to see Pitt football as one of the lead stories.

The talking heads raved about redshirt senior Kenny Pickett’s poise, charisma and versatility while simultaneously discussing Pitt’s chances at making the College Football Playoff. A feeling of unfamiliarity wiped over myself and many Pitt fans. These aren’t your same old Panthers — this is a team with playoff aspirations.

In the quest to make the College Football Playoff, every game matters — even a single loss has held very talented teams out of the event in years past. Pitt’s week three loss to Western Michigan will continue to serve as a major blemish on its resume. But how the team has responded to the loss is what separates this team from your “same old Pitt Panthers” to playoff hopefuls.

Pickett called a players-only meeting without coaches the day after the loss, Narduzzi has said at past press conferences. The quarterback stood in front of his teammates, hoping to rejuvenate the locker room, and make sure they knew they had the potential to be great. After taking down Clemson, head coach Pat Narduzzi said Pickett’s leadership is what separates this year’s team from others.

“It comes down to the senior leadership — Kenny Pickett leadership,” Narduzzi said. “You’re only as good as your team. If you’re a player-led team, you have a chance with Kenny. I hope all our young guys learn from Kenny Pickett.”

It’s safe to say that Pickett got his point across.

Since the meeting, Pitt is outscoring its opponents 184-52, has won four straight games and received national notoriety, and jumped all the way to the No. 17 team in the nation.

Fans who are hoping to see Pitt make an appearance in the College Football Playoff this year may have stronger opinions about the loss to the Broncos. But in the grand scheme of things, the loss is far from the end of the world.

The loss was ugly but, as Narduzzi was quick to point out, the Broncos are not an ACC opponent — meaning the game had no impact on their quest to play in the ACC Championship Game. Pitt has also managed to climb the national polls and if they win out, they’ll almost certainly still be awarded a New Year’s Six Bowl game.

The Broncos exposed the Panthers’ weaknesses on both sides of the football. The defense struggled against a spread Run-Pass Option offense and the offense struggled moving the football on the ground — two areas that the Panthers have flourished in since.

The Broncos exposed junior safety Erick Hallett II in particular with the RPO. Using a mix of quick slants and pick plays, the Broncos forced the ball downfield all game while targeting Hallett’s side of the field. But since this game, in matchups with RPO-style offenses — Virginia Tech and Clemson — Hallett has registered four pass breakups, an interception and nine total tackles.

Hallett has evolved from a point of concern to an anchor in the secondary alongside redshirt sophomore safety Brandon Hill.

Narduzzi said a few days after the loss that he wished he had made more adjustments during the game. It was clear something needed to change with the defensive alignment and Narduzzi did just that.

Junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis and redshirt senior linebacker John Petrishen — two linebackers with speed akin to a defensive back — started to see much more time and less rotation in and out. These two present versatility with the ability to bring pressure or drop back in coverage if needed. Keeping mobile quarterbacks contained has not been nearly as much of an issue as it once was.

The defense as a whole has played at an elevated level since this infamous meeting. Senior defensive back Damarri Mathis said he thinks that the loss to Western Michigan and Pickett’s meeting brought the team closer together.

“We’re already a close-knit group,” Mathis said a week after the loss when asked about the meeting. “It’s the extra stuff, the little things that Kenny does and he’s a great leader for the things that he does.”

Offensively, the Panthers are now running the ball with proficiency after struggling to move the ball on the ground through the first few weeks. The offensive line is moving men up front with authority, clearing lanes for their running backs.

First-year running back Rodney Hammond earned more playing time since his three-touchdown performance the week after the loss to the Broncos. His style of play complements the play of the offensive line while bringing a fearless attitude to the offense as well.

“We’re Pitt, we aren’t scared of nobody — we’re dogs,” Hammond said after knocking off the Clemson Tigers.

The WMU loss exposed Pitt’s weaknesses to Narduzzi, giving him the opportunity to make necessary adjustments before conference play began.

What Pickett said in the closed-door meeting may never become public. But if this team lives up to its lofty expectations, the speech could go down as one of the biggest in Pitt athletics history.

“You learn from your mistakes,” Narduzzi said. “That’s what life is. You have to learn from your mistakes. We stumbled. But we got back up. It’s not what happens early, it’s what happens late. Our guys responded after that game. Like you said, that team meeting that Kenny called, it got everybody together.”

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