Pitt falls to No. 9 Oklahoma State, 59-21
When Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi meets with his team Sunday, he will see players worried about their jobs and coaches looking for ways to fix a scheme gone wrong on both sides of the football.
Generally, what will be awaiting Narduzzi is a roomful of people looking for answers to tough questions.
The 59-21 loss to No. 9 Oklahoma State on Saturday was more than just the worst Pitt defeat in Heinz Field's 17 seasons. It was the second decisive loss to a top-10 team in two weeks, and it left Pitt (1-2) with its first losing record in Narduzzi's three years as coach.
When he was asked what can be done to reverse the fortunes of a defense that has allowed 92 points and 988 yards in the past two games, part of his answer pointed out the apparent deficiencies in his roster.
"Keep recruiting and keep coaching hard," he said. "Don't give up faith in what you're doing. We have to have belief in what we're doing."
Pitt's young team — presently without a starting quarterback after Max Browne was benched early in the second quarter in favor of Ben DiNucci — couldn't compete against Penn State and Oklahoma State, the best teams on its schedule.
The tackling was poor and Pitt had only one sack of Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, who is not known for his mobility.
"Fran Tarkenton wasn't back there," Narduzzi said.
It was no better in the secondary where pass coverage disappeared on many plays. Rudolph threw for 497 yards and five touchdowns in less than three quarters.
In the end, Oklahoma State (3-0) became the first FBS team in 12 years with four pass catchers totaling at least 100 yards.
"It definitely feels like a step back," strong safety Dennis Briggs said. "The numbers will tell you the story."
The first half was an embarrassment, with Oklahoma State converting all nine third downs and scoring 49 points (seven touchdowns on the first seven possessions), the most by a Pitt opponent in 21 years.
On offense, neither Pitt quarterback had the benefit of a running game, with three backs (Chawntez Moss, Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall) carrying 20 times for 43 yards.
Can Pitt improve in time for the start of ACC play next Saturday at Georgia Tech?
The first order of business is naming a quarterback to start that game.
"We have a decision to make, for sure," Narduzzi said, indicating it will be made this week long before it becomes public. "Max wasn't very productive when he was in there.
"Ben came in and gave us a spark, which we thought he could. He provided that spark and did some nice things and he did some things that, we talked, decision-wise, he can't do."
Browne completed 7 of 10 passes but for only 60 yards. He missed Jester Weah on a first-quarter pass that looked like a touchdown that would have trimmed the Oklahoma State lead to 14-7.
DiNucci completed 13 of 25 for 228 yards and two interceptions, one returned 10 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Justin Phillips. On the other, DiNucci — like Browne — missed Weah at the Oklahoma State 3.
DiNucci had Pitt's longest run of the day (23 yards), and said after the game that his legs can be asset. His longest pass play was a quick, accurate sideways throw that Quadree Henderson turned into a 74-yard gain. DiNucci's only touchdown pass (14 yards) was a product of Rafael Araujo-Lopes spinning out of trouble and crossing the goal line.
Pitt showed some life with DiNucci, but whether that's enough for him to earn his first collegiate start next Saturday, only Narduzzi can answer that question. Not that he's eager to provide an answer that he believes would help Georgia Tech in it preparations.
DiNucci said he feels comfortable behind center, and can bring a presence to the team.
"In terms of a leader," he said, "guys will just naturally follow me."
The interceptions, though, are tough to ignore.
"He moved them down the field, but you have to get them in the end zone when you get down there," Narduzzi said. "We will continue to evaluate, and we'll watch the tape and see where we are."
Helping his players maintain a positive outlook and turn it into productive efforts might be the toughest task Narduzzi will face as long as he is Pitt's coach.
"I have no doubts our guys are going to come to play next week," he said. "They have to let it go."
"We don't have a choice," Briggs said. "It's not pointing fingers. It's not blaming each other. It's not putting your head down."
It's a test that will unmask Pitt's true identity.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.