Kevin Gorman: No defense for Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s costly call against Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK — Pat Narduzzi dared to defend a decision that defied logic with an explanation that was inexplicable.
The Pitt coach had his Panthers in perfect position to score an upset over No. 13 Penn State: Trailing by seven points, they had a fourth-and-goal at the 1 with 4 minutes, 59 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
A touchdown and an extra point would have tied the score.
Instead, Narduzzi sent out his field-goal unit, only to see Alex Kessman’s 19-yard field-goal attempt bounce off the left upright. The crowd of 108,661 at Beaver Stadium, which had fallen quiet, burst into cheers and the band played.
“I wanted to play to win the football game,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a two-possession game, as far as we’ve got to score twice to win the football game.
“I don’t question that decision at all, really.”
Narduzzi is all alone there.
When we reminisce about the 100th and last scheduled game in the Pitt-Penn State rivalry — a 17-10 victory for the Nittany Lions on Saturday afternoon — we will recall Journey Brown’s 85-yard run, Jordan Stout’s school-record 57-yard field goal, Kenny Pickett’s career game and his Hail Mary that landed in the end zone as time expired.
Mostly, we will talk about Narduzzi’s call.
“We could’ve gone for it there and not gotten it,” Narduzzi said. “I thought if we kick a field goal there, it’s going to be a two-possession game. We need two scores. A field goal is a good play, then you can come back and score again.
“You can go back and question the fourth-and-1: go for it or not go for it. If we go for it and don’t get it, it’s like, ‘Why didn’t you kick the field goal?’ You need two scores anyway to win a football game. That’s what it comes down to.”
What it comes down to is Narduzzi didn’t trust his Panthers to punch it in from the 1. He noted the anemic run totals for a program that was billing itself as RBU not so long ago: 24 yards on 25 carries. He failed to mention freshman running back Vincent Davis scored on a 3-yard run in the second quarter.
“We can look back at all the calls, guys,” Narduzzi said. “All the armchair quarterbacks, you guys all have those armchair desks, so it’s easy to make those decisions. We were throwing the ball — we threw for over 300 yards — and we felt like we had some plays open.”
That’s true. Pickett was as good as we’ve seen him. The Pitt junior quarterback completed 35 of 51 passes for 372 yards — all career highs — and had just thrown a picture-perfect pass to Taysir Mack at the 1-yard line on the visiting sideline, so close to a touchdown it knocked the camera off the pylon.
On first-and-goal, Pickett rolled right under pressure from Cam Brown and threw incomplete. On second down, Pickett ran a play-action bootleg and was stood up by safety Garrett Taylor. On third down, Pickett escaped the pocket with Brown on his heels but missed an open A.J. Davis in the end zone.
Think Pickett wanted to go for it on fourth down?
“As a competitor,” Pickett said, “you’re always going to want to.”
Instead, Narduzzi took the ball out of his best player’s hands — even Pickett called that “tough” — and played it safe when he should have gone for the jugular.
The Panthers were 17-point underdogs at Penn State and had a chance to either tie the score or take the lead. The rule is: You go for the win on the road. Everyone knows that. Instead, Narduzzi opted to take three points, and it backfired in the worst way.
“When you’re able to stop someone at the 1-yard line, get them moving backward and then, obviously, miss the field goal,” Penn State coach James Franklin said, “that is significant in the game.”
Obviously, the missed opportunity was the turning point.
“You need to two scores to win the football game, unless you guys are trying to play for overtime,” Narduzzi said, dismissively. “We’re trying to win a football game, so…”
It was pointed out Pitt could have scored a touchdown and played to win in overtime or gone for a two-point conversion to take the lead and make it a one-possession game. That would have put the pressure on Penn State to score in the final five minutes. Maybe Narduzzi was spooked by Stout’s strong leg.
Here’s the worst part: Even if Pitt was stopped short on fourth-and-goal, Penn State would have taken over at its own 1. Instead, after the missed field goal, the Nittany Lions automatically got the ball at their 20 with 4:54 left.
The Panthers rose to the occasion, as their defense forced a punt. Pickett got another chance with 1:56 left, driving from the Panthers’ 16 to the Penn State 26 in 10 plays and converting a fourth-and-12 pass to Mack. If Pitt had tied it on that fourth-and-goal, the Panthers could have won it with a field goal.
“A loss like this is tough,” Pickett said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
This should make Pitt gag: It was 3 for 3 on fourth downs.
Not that Narduzzi was going to second-guess his call. He not only defended his decision but doubled down.
“Ultimately, it’s my call,” Narduzzi said. “You can blame it all on my me. It’s my fault.”
Not that Narduzzi sounds like he is going to lose sleep over it.
“It won’t linger long at all, guys,” Narduzzi said. “It is what it is. It’s tough, a tough call. You kick a field goal there, get a drive mustered up and you go down and score a touchdown and you win by three. That’s what we expect, to score. You’ve got to score more than 10 points to win a football game.”
That’s what you should expect when you have four plays from the 1 at Penn State, not a call that was as illogical as it was inexplicable — and one that Pitt will wear indefinitely.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .