Kevin Gorman: Pitt came dressed to kill, but the Panthers delivered a dud
If the hangdog expression on Heather Lyke’s face didn’t display the depth of her disappointment in Pitt’s 30-14 season-opening loss to Virginia, Pat Narduzzi’s explanation filled in the blanks.
Lyke looked like someone who spent countless hours decorating for and delivering a birthday extravaganza, only to see the surprise spoiled by the guest of honor.
The Pitt athletic director has relentlessly promoted the Panthers, starting with a re-brand that revealed royal blue and gold as the new school colors. Flashing her signature smile, she claimed that if Pitt looked good, it would play good.
The Panthers came dressed to kill, but delivered a dud.
That left an exasperated Narduzzi to explain how Pitt blew a halftime lead and lost to an ACC Coastal Division rival on Saturday night before an announced crowd of 47,144 at Heinz Field. The Pitt coach wasn’t trying to throw a pity party when he said that everything and anything that could go wrong did.
“We didn’t make enough plays,” Narduzzi said. “We missed throws. We dropped balls. We don’t protect the quarterback. We don’t tackle as well as we need to. It starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job of getting them ready. I thought emotionally and physically ready to go. We got what we wanted in the passing game. We had guys open. We just didn’t … you’ve got to connect.”
Narduzzi got that part right. There was a disconnect that started with its head coach and was passed on to the Panthers. It was an odd juxtaposition, Pitt attempting to reinvent its offense by abandoning its rushing game for a passing attack just as the school was returning to its roots.
Last season, Pitt billed itself as RBU as it boasted a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in the same backfield for the first time in school history. But Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall are gone, along with four starters from the front five.
This is Narduzzi’s fifth season, so Pitt should be in plug-and-play mode when it comes to replacing players. Instead, Pitt pinned its hopes on Kenny Pickett and opened by passing on its first six offensive plays. The junior quarterback completed just one those throws, for 3 yards, in twice going three-and-out.
Before Pitt could blink, Virginia led, 10-0.
“He threw some balls in the dirt, even the first play,” Narduzzi said. “It was just first-game jitters, I guess. He’s going to have to relax and do a good job. I have a lot of faith in Kenny.”
The Panthers still seem smitten by Pickett’s
performance in his starting debut, an upset of previously undefeated Miami in the 2017 season finale. But Pickett hasn’t looked the same since, save the 316-yard, three-touchdown game at Wake Forest that clinched the ACC Coastal Division title last November.
The Panthers were hoping Pickett would progress under new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Instead, we saw more of the same, a quarterback with accuracy issues who is capable of making as many mistakes as he does big plays.
Blame the new offense, if you will, but Pitt’s struggles appeared to be more execution than scheme.
“We can make all kinds of excuses why but that’s obviously one of them,” Narduzzi said. “The next one is, make plays. I don’t know. You’ve certainly got to look at a new offense, new terminology, new stuff and you’ve got to make plays.”
Pickett threw a career-high 41 passes, completing 21 for 185 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 44 yards on 12 carries. His scrambling ability was key in Pitt’s 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter as the Panthers rallied from a 10-0 deficit to take a 14-13 halftime lead.
But Pickett was off-target on several throws, had receivers drop at least two deep passes, was sacked four times for minus-28 yards and threw two critical second-half interceptions that killed any of Pitt’s remaining momentum.
“We showed glimpses but if you show glimpses you’re not going to win the game,” Pickett said. “You’ve got to be consistent the whole game. As coach said, there’s plays to be made and we didn’t make them.”
That’s a Pitt look that’s getting old, even with its new hues.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .