Kovacevic: Pitt sticks by same old script
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
These are the games that Pitt loses.
And so it did.
And the beat goes on.
I could probably stop right there and satisfy every relevant requirement to analyzing this particular storyline, but really, tell me, what else should anyone take from the Panthers' 34-27 loss to North Carolina on Saturday at Heinz Field?
That riveting 24-point rally to tie in the second half?
It was fun while it lasted, but it shouldn't have come to that, anyway, against the mediocre, maybe middling Tar Heels.
That Tom Savage valiantly played through what looked like a nasty knee injury?
Kudos to him, but his errant passing was largely responsible for digging that first-half hole before he was hurt.
That Aaron Donald tore through blockers as if his inner motor had been set to devour?
Great, but the marquee player performing at his peak was somehow overshadowed by the backups giving up two punt-return TDs.
I'll just come right out and say it: This was so Pitt. I mean, this was Cincinnati, Youngstown State, Navy and every other measure of manic inconsistency one can ascribe to this program, all rolled into one. It was raising hopes just a week earlier with a thrilling upset of Notre Dame, one that moved students and alumni watching on national TV as well as those jamming Heinz Field who joyously chanted “Let's go Pitt!” as they filed out … only to have everything bodyslammed right back where it was.
Paul Chryst might have made mistakes before and during this game, but he sure nailed his assessment afterward: “We didn't get it done.”
No, and until that storyline changes, until the highs stop finding matching lows, Chryst's program will stay stuck in neutral. He went 6-7 in his first season, and he's now 5-5, including a robustly disappointing 2-4 in the inaugural ACC season, and now everyone's right back crossing fingers for yet another Lame-O BBVA Car Care Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Why did it happen again?
Chryst told us, “I don't know necessarily if complacency was an issue. I think it was more due to the big turnover in the red zone.”
He might be right. That unforced fumble by Savage in the first quarter swung the game violently North Carolina's way.
But then, why did Jason Hendricks, a senior safety, openly decry not playing with “the same emotion” Pitt showed against Notre Dame?
And why did James Conner, a freshman running back, offer, “We just didn't fight” as his explanation for the first half?
There are hard, tangible reasons, of course, why Pitt isn't succeeding. To suggest otherwise is to foolishly avoid looking past the narrative. The offensive line is atop the list, as we witnessed again with seven sacks of Savage. Some of that's due to injury, but Chryst still needs more. The defense has Donald and Hendricks and emerging playmaker Ray Vinopal but not much else. The coach needs more there, too. He doesn't have enough impact players, and it's fair to give him more than a couple years to recruit those.
But the intangible ... man, isn't that what's most maddening here?
Let me throw out a thought, and it's nothing more: On Pitt's final possession, when it had fourth-and-1 at the North Carolina 26, why not try something a little daring?
What Chryst did was what everyone in the stadium knew he would: Have Savage turn around and hand off to Conner.
In fairness, the play call had some merit: Conner chugged hard for his 102 yards. And a sneak probably wouldn't have been too smart given Savage's knee.
But it all blew up. The O-line buckled, both inside linebackers set their sights squarely on Conner —he noticed this before the snap — and thud, 1-yard loss.
It was the safe call, for sure, but why go safe?
Why not start pushing things a bit, prodding whatever demons happen to delight in punishing the Pitt program?
I'm not going to suggest an alternate play call, but I will point out that only 1:15 remained, a touchdown was needed sooner rather than later, North Carolina had nine men in the box and might be hard-pressed to defend a pass and — oh, yeah — Tyler Boyd, the most dangerous player on either team, was watching from Pitt's sideline.
Draw up your own X's and O's for No. 23 and enjoy.
I asked Chryst about his choice, and he answered candidly: “Always when they don't work, you wish you'd done something different.”
What Pitt's doing now isn't working.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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