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Pitt loses the dreaded game of inches, again

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, 5:12 p.m.

Pat Narduzzi was right.

Pitt's loss at Virginia Tech came down to inches. “Again,” he said.

He probably didn't know it at the time, but the 20-14 loss Saturday was the ninth in Narduzzi's past 12 games decided by eight points or fewer. Funny, but he was 5-1 in such games to start his Pitt tenure.

Actually, this one was a matter of 54 inches because the football was resting between the 1- and 2-yard hash marks when Virginia Tech's defense wouldn't budge on four consecutive snaps at the end of the game.

Three runs by Pitt's best (by far) running back Darrin Hall for 0, 0 and negative-3 yards and a breakup by Virginia Tech cornerback Greg Stroman on a pass intended for Jester Weah sent Pitt to a 4-7 record for the first time since 2007.

Play calling? Questionable, at best, considering Pitt ran three times while holding only one timeout. Pitt still had enough time to run four plays, but most were into the stout heart of the Virginia Tech defense.

There are other options in offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's playbook, but Narduzzi seemed satisfied with the play calling.

“You have to block,” he said.

Again, he's right.

It's true Pitt was averaging 2.1 yards per rush before that sequence, but the Panthers only needed half of that one time to tie the score. He trusted his offensive line to open up enough room for Hall to fall 56 inches. This time, he was wrong.

The defense is getting better while the offense continues to regress. When your defense holds a team to 20 points, you're expected to win. Only three Power 5 teams (Michigan State, Stanford and Virginia Tech) won with 20 points or fewer this weekend.

All appears to be lost, but appearances are deceiving. There's some symmetry to the comparison to 2007 when Pitt was 4-7 and getting ready to face a team (West Virginia) dreaming of a national championship. Undefeated and No. 2 Miami comes to town Friday with the same dreams.

Sounds like a potential proving ground for freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett, who replaced Ben DiNucci in the second quarter and threw for 242 yards — a season-high against a Power 5 defense and 22 more than Nathan Peterman averaged last year.

Pickett wasted a timeout at the start of the second half after reading the wrong wristband (cheat sheet) and getting confused, according to Narduzzi. But he did more good than bad against a stingy defense in a hostile stadium.

Narduzzi likes to talk about situational substitutions — using a player whose skill set best fits the opponent. Virginia Tech wasn't going to allow much room for the running game, so Pitt turned to Pickett, who the coach said is the “better passer at this point.”

There's some merit to that line of thinking, but perhaps it's time to choose one for the Miami game, see how Pickett handles that vicious, opportunistic Hurricane defense and let the competition resume in the spring.

Pitt's already 4-7. There's nothing else to lose, but maybe something important to gain.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

Pittsburgh players look on after the final play of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 18 2017. Virginia Tech won, 20-14. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)
Pittsburgh players look on after the final play of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 18 2017. Virginia Tech won, 20-14. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)
Virginia Tech's Andrew Motuapuaka (25) stops Pitt's Darrin Hall (22) at the line of scrimmage during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Blacksburg, Va. Saturday, Nov. 18 2017. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)
Virginia Tech's Andrew Motuapuaka (25) stops Pitt's Darrin Hall (22) at the line of scrimmage during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Blacksburg, Va. Saturday, Nov. 18 2017. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)
Pittsburgh lineman Jaryd Jones-Smith (55) reacts at the end of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 18 2017. Virginia Tech won, 20-14. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)
Pittsburgh lineman Jaryd Jones-Smith (55) reacts at the end of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 18 2017. Virginia Tech won, 20-14. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)
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