Kevin Gorman: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi can't allow team to sink further
Pat Narduzzi began with an apology to Pitt Nation, and even that was an apathetic answer to the Panthers’ worst defeat ever at Heinz Field and most lopsided loss to Penn State in a half century.
How do you explain Penn State 51, Pitt 6?
“That was not Pitt football right there,” Narduzzi said.
Good lord, he better hope not.
Defiant even when dampened, the Pitt coach didn’t dwell on the depths of this defeat in the 99th edition of one of college football oldest rivalries, except to admit that the Panthers weren’t “ready to go in any capacity — offensively, defensively or special teams.”
As final scores go, this was worse than West Virginia, whether we are talking about Walt Harris’ teams giving up 52 points in back-to-back losses in 1998 at Three Rivers Stadium and the ‘99 season finale in Morgantown or Dave Wannstedt’s teams giving up 45 points in back-to-back losses in 2005 at Mountaineer Field and ’06 at Heinz Field.
This was worse than the 54-14 loss to Ohio State in 1995 at Pitt Stadium, worse than the 57-13 loss to Penn State in 1992 at Beaver Stadium — a loss that got Paul Hackett fired before the finale at Hawaii.
And this was the latest in a long line of devastating defeats that dimmed what should have been memorable moments for Pitt. Despite a steady downpour, the game drew a sellout crowd of 68,400.
Pitt introduced its inaugural Hall of Fame class, which included football legends Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Mike Ditka honored on the field at halftime — only for them to see the Panthers get outscored 37-0 by Penn State in the second half.
Asked to describe the defeat in his own words, Narduzzi was at a loss.
“You can probably use any adjective you want, really,” Narduzzi said. “It’s frustrating. I’m humbled as it is, so I’m not worried. It’s not humbling, it’s life. It’s the game of football. It’s adversity that you go through, and then the key is going to be how we rebound from this adversity. That’s going to be the key. I trust and love those kids in that locker room, and I’ve got no doubt that they’ll come back next week ready to go, period.”
If this defeat runs as deep as the rivalry runs hot, that’s because the final score was a bit misleading. The first half was a close game. The second half, Penn State showcased its superiority in a way Pitt won’t forget.
Penn State coach James Franklin, still smarting from the 42-39 loss at Heinz Field in 2016, proved petty in the fourth quarter. With a 44-6 lead in the fourth, his Nittany Lions kept pouring it on by throwing a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Sean Clifford to Brandon Polk with 4 minutes, 21 seconds left and taking a timeout with 1:09 left to challenge a fumble.
Even Narduzzi wasn’t in position to point fingers at Franklin, instead turning the thumbs at himself and taking blame for the debacle.
“Hey, you know what, I coach Pitt football,” Narduzzi said before referencing the fact there is one more meeting of the four-game series next year in Happy Valley. “I don’t coach for anybody else. That’s on them. You’ve got to sleep at night. It’s just where we are right now. We’ll have another shot. We’ll have another shot. It ain’t over.”
It wasn’t just that the Panthers couldn’t stop Penn State; they couldn’t get out of their own way. Pitt had 14 penalties for 116 yards, including an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Narduzzi for stepping onto the field to argue an illegal substitution call. Pitt threw an interception at the Penn State 2. Punter Kirk Christodoulou botched the holds on an extra-point attempt, a missed field goal and a long snap on a punt for a fumble.
No wonder Narduzzi elected to listen to his players and go for it on a fourth-and-3 at the Penn State 4 late in the second quarter. It was called an “attitude play” by Pitt senior running back Qadree Ollison, and his 3-yard loss proved to be the momentum changer that propelled Penn State.
Consider it another opportunity lost for Pitt and Narduzzi, the brash coach who led the Panthers to upset victories over eventual Big Ten champion Penn State and national champion Clemson two years ago and No. 2 Miami in the finale last year and who boldly predicted that Pitt would play for the ACC championship in Charlotte.
“We set our goal to be champions, and no one said it’s going to be easy,” Pitt senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis said. “Hopefully, this game is a little slap in the face, a wake-up call that it’s not going to be easy. We still all believe in this locker room in ourselves and this team that we can accomplish our goals. But it’s not going to be easy.”
This lopsided loss to Penn State must serve as a slap in the face and the wake-up call that Pitt needs under Narduzzi because his Panthers can’t afford to sink to greater depths of defeat.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.