Kovacevic: Pitt goes passive, gets pounded

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Upsets are rooted in the unexpected: Something chaotic or unpredictable almost always needs to happen along the way. And the greater the disparity between the opponents, the greater the number of those somethings the underdog needs.

To put it in football terms: Go for it.

Aim for the jugular.

If you miss, you miss, but at least you've created your best circumstance to pull it off.

Which is to say, don't even remotely consider the approach taken by Paul Chryst and staff in Pitt's stick-to-the-script, season-opening 41-13 flogging from No. 11 Florida State on Monday night at Heinz Field.

No, the Panthers probably wouldn't beat these bigger, faster, more experienced, more skilled Seminoles but once or twice if they met a hundred times.

And, no, the Panthers probably wouldn't have solved the Seminoles' phenom quarterback, Jameis Winston, whose collegiate debut saw — sit down for this — 25 completions in 27 attempts for 356 yards and four touchdowns, plus 25 more yards and another TD on the ground.

“I was certainly impressed with him,” Chryst was telling us afterward. “He did a good job of making plays and extending plays.”

Well, that's one way to sum it up. Another is that Winston had only one pass touch the grass. The first of his two incompletions came as the result of a receiver — barely — stepping out of bounds.

Winston was brilliant. He lived up to all the Randall Cunningham hype and beyond.

But, man, at least make the kid sweat a little.

Pitt's defense spent most of the night basically sitting back and watching. Chryst and defensive coordinator Matt House seldom mixed up schemes to confuse Winston, seldom set up their secondary within 10 yards of Florida State's receivers at the line, and almost never blitzed. The reasoning was that they couldn't manage all the speed and all the straight-arrow routes, but the fact is the Panthers' secondary couldn't cover anything, anyway, so why not go for it?

This was a defense only Gandhi could have loved: Passive resistance, and hope for the best.

Chryst's explanation for the failure was this: “We never made them uncomfortable. Give them credit. We've got to tackle better, but they ran through our tackles.”

I'm on board with that first sentence, for sure.

The offense was only marginally more aggressive. Tom Savage, Devin Street and Tyler Boyd conspired for an eye-popping, 80-yard opening touchdown drive built on big plays. “I was out of control, so excited,” Savage recalled, and you should have seen the whole place hopping with him. It was way early, but upsets begin by planting those kinds of seeds.

Before long, though, the Panthers were reduced to trying to pound the ball through the middle with an ineffective Isaac Bennett, then leaning on Savage — scraping off three years of rust — struggling to find Street through two or three bodies.

There was nothing there.

And Boyd?

The elite receiving recruit out of Clairton, whose first touch was an electric 18-yard slice through the line on an inside handoff, might have been most capable of providing exactly the jolt to bring one of those chaotic or unpredictable somethings. But incredibly, he'd touch the ball just one more time the rest of the first half.

For a 23-yard gain, no less!

Final tally for Boyd was two catches for 26 yards — one an acrobatic effort near the sideline — and 54 yards on three rushes. But his four second-half touches rang hollow in light of Florida State already having soared ahead by three touchdowns.

This was the wild card Chryst needed to play with his initial hand, and he held it far too long.

I asked the coach if we can expect to see more of Boyd after this: “Yeah, I mean, absolutely. We're trying to find ways to … he's a good football player. I was impressed with the way he handled everything.”

Boyd had a similar response to the same question: “Oh, definitely. I think I did everything I could do. I could have made more plays, but I made just enough to do well.”

To repeat, this is hardly devastating. What was supposed to happen happened. It was a big whooping, but big whoop.

And I'm certainly not going to let the student-athletes off the hook, especially those in the secondary that was supposed to be a Pitt strength. The tackling was abysmal, and the coverage was awful times a zillion.

“We were there,” cornerback K'Waun Williams said. “We were in position to make plays. We just didn't finish.”

Hardly anyone did. This was lousy all-around.

And yet, what I can't get past was that this had a chance to be a special night, with ESPN airing the only game in the nation, with a throbbing pro-Pitt crowd of 65,000, with the eyes of the ACC on the newest member, with Downtown skyscrapers lit up in blue and gold as part of the university's continuing effort to connect to the city.

It could have been big, but you'd first have to think big.

Chryst and his team took the predictable route and reaped the predictable result.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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