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Kevin Gorman: Pitt's problems run far deeper than QB

Kevin Gorman
| Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, 8:21 p.m.
Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci drops back to pass against   Oklahoma State Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci drops back to pass against Oklahoma State Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Oklahoma State's Jalen McCleskey avoids Pitt's Dane Jackson down the sideline in the firs half  Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Oklahoma State's Jalen McCleskey avoids Pitt's Dane Jackson down the sideline in the firs half Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi yells during the Oklahoma State game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi yells during the Oklahoma State game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Oklahoma State's Dillon Stoner beats Pitt's Dennis Briggs for a second-quarter touchdown Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Oklahoma State's Dillon Stoner beats Pitt's Dennis Briggs for a second-quarter touchdown Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Pitt  quarterback Max Browne walks off the field with his head down after not getting a third down conversion against Oklahoma State in the first half Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Pitt quarterback Max Browne walks off the field with his head down after not getting a third down conversion against Oklahoma State in the first half Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.

Updated 21 hours ago

Pitt doesn't have a quarterback controversy so much as it does an identity crisis.

When your defense surrenders 423 passing yards and 49 points by halftime, your starting quarterback should be the least of your worries.

The problem for Pat Narduzzi and his Pitt Panthers isn't just that they couldn't stop Oklahoma State in a 59-21 loss Saturday at Heinz Field, it's that they didn't throw a counterpunch until down by five touchdowns.

That's when Narduzzi finally sent redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci in to replace graduate transfer Max Browne, who had completed 70 percent (7 of 10) of his passes but averaged only 8.6 yards per completion.

DiNucci, a Pine-Richland graduate, completed 13 of 25 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown but also threw two interceptions, one that was returned for a score.

Narduzzi was looking for a spark, and DiNucci provided one. Just way too late.

“Yeah, but we're still losing,” said Pitt wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes, who led the Panthers with six receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown and also downed a punt at the OSU 1.

“So, we can try to get caught up in the hype of this and that. We have to win the game. I know the coaches are going to do whatever they can to make sure we win moving forward. All that spark stuff doesn't matter. We've got to put points on the board, and we've got to win.”

Narduzzi looked as wishy-washy on his quarterback situation as the Pitt students who started the game with their bare chests painted to spell B-R-O-W-N-E, only to be caught later on camera spelling B-E-N. Narduzzi even went wistful in reminiscing about Nate Peterman and wishful in talking about recruiting, as if the answers aren't on this team.

“Do we have a great quarterback? No, not right now,” Narduzzi said. “That's what happens when you're a young football team. It wasn't Max's fault. It was all 11 players. It's all 11 players, plus me.”

Mostly you, Coach.

Narduzzi called the defeat to the No. 9 Cowboys “about the worst day you can have at the office,” and that might have been shortchanging it.

It was a lopsided loss of historic proportions at Heinz Field — the most points Pitt allowed in the first half since the infamous 72-0 loss to Ohio State in 1996 — and could have been worse if the teams hadn't turned the second half into what Narduzzi called a “scrimmage.”

Narduzzi blew his biggest game of the home schedule from the opening coin toss.

Pitt won but elected to defer to Oklahoma State, which was averaging 51.5 points a game and has a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Mason Rudolph.

That decision took only two minutes to backfire, as Rudolph directed a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive for a 7-0 lead. Oklahoma State scored on its first seven possessions before mercifully taking a knee at its own 25 with 16 seconds left in the first half.

The Cowboys made a mockery of Pitt's pass defense, a troubling theme that continues from last season.

Rudolph completed 23 of 32 passes for 497 yards and five touchdowns, exploiting the secondary for scoring passes of 54, 69, 40 and 48 yards — and he almost had another, if not for an interception by Avonte Maddox at the Pitt 2.

“Obviously, it's tough,” Pitt strong safety Dennis Briggs said. “You're searching for answers. You really can't figure it out and just trying to get better. It's a process trying to move on to get to the next play. …

“Honestly, it feels terrible.”

What's worse is Pitt couldn't get off the field. Oklahoma State converted its first nine third downs, including a third-and-11 at its 3. The Cowboys gained 157 yards on those third downs, twice scoring touchdowns.

“That hurt. That's the money down,” Maddox said. “That's the down we have to compete in, get off the field and get the ball back to our offense. We had deep pins down there with them, and they completed them and executed on their plays.”

For a defensive whiz, Narduzzi's unit has ranked among the nation's worst against the pass. That makes Pitt's play-calling and quarterback play so much more meaningful, but the Panthers came up short in both areas through the first three games this season.

Blame Browne all you want, as he hasn't displayed the experience of a fifth-year senior or the leadership of a captain so far.

But he has six career starts under his belt and four of them — Alabama and Stanford last year at Southern Cal and Penn State and Oklahoma State this year at Pitt — have been against top-10 opponents.

No coach would volunteer to play four teams of that caliber in his first six games. But I'm not buying Narduzzi's answer as to why he waited so long to make the switch at quarterback.

“The second quarter is pretty early,” Narduzzi said.

Not when your team is losing by 35 points. Not when you blame Browne for overthrowing Jester Weah on a deep sideline route midway through the first quarter.

Not when a holding penalty negated a 33-yard run by Chawntez Moss, and the Panthers responded to a second-and-26 by throwing a screen pass to Moss for 12 yards and a third-and-14 with a 9-yard pass to tight end Matt Flanagan.

Pitt competed last season thanks to Matt Canada's creative counterpunches, but Shawn Watson's play-calling has left a lot to be desired.

When your defense allows a quarterback to pass for almost 500 yards and four players with 100 yards receiving — and Oklahoma State led by 35 points before All-American James Washington even caught a pass — your problems run deeper on defense than at quarterback.

“The numbers will tell you the story,” Briggs said. “We need to draw from that and start faster the next game.”

Or, at least, don't defer for a defense that can't stop its opponent from scoring.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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