Pat Narduzzi made many statements after Pitt’s 17-10 loss to Penn State, but two stand out for those people — including the coach himself — who believe good teams are built on a strong running game.
The overriding talking point is Narduzzi’s baffling decision to kick a field goal, down 7, when Pitt was 1 yard from the end zone with 4:59 left to play Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
But the chief point of discussion this week in coaches’ and players’ meetings as they prepare for No. 15 Central Florida (3-0) will be Pitt’s lack of a running game.
Here’s what Narduzzi said during his postgame news conference about the decision to kick the field goal:
“We could have gone for it there and not gotten it.”
Narduzzi was living in his fears, which his next-door neighbor on the South Side will tell you is no way to live.
Then, this: “You run out of plays you feel really good about.”
None of the three plays from the 1 involved handing the ball to a running back.
All of it mixed together in one cauldron of questions and second-guessing tells us this:
Narduzzi is questioning his team’s ability to execute in short-yardage situations.
Those questions will intensify the rest of the season, starting with the Central Florida game, the second consecutive test of Pitt’s national reputation, and the seven ACC games that follow.
After three games, Pitt (1-2) is 122nd among 130 FBS schools and last in the ACC in rushing yards (an average of 87.3 yards per game). That doesn’t sound as bad as this stat, however:
Yards per carry (1.85, 102 on 55 attempts) against No. 13 Penn State and No. 15 Virginia, ranked teams Pitt has defeated in the past.
What’s amazing — and also says a lot about Penn State’s program — is Pitt’s total rushing yards Saturday (24) is tied for the third fewest the Nittany Lions have allowed under coach James Franklin. Pitt gained 20 yards more than Idaho did in Penn State’s opener.
Pitt aspires to more than becoming fodder on someone else’s stat sheet. Especially when you recall the 15 1,000-yard backs the school has produced (23 occasions overall) since its most recent national championship — from 1976 Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett to Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall a year ago.
“You have to give them credit,” said Narduzzi of Penn State’s run defense that is ranked ninth in the nation, allowing an average of 70.7 yards per game.
“We’ll go back and watch the tape and really make decisions on what happened there. We knew the front seven was pretty good.”
Even after Mychale Salahuddin transferred, probably because he was too far down the depth chart, Pitt has a full stable of running backs. A.J. Davis, Vincent Davis and V’Lique Carter were the top three Saturday. Todd Sibley Jr., who had no carries against Penn State, had 10 for 26 yards in the first two games.
A.J. Davis, though, played a big role in the passing game, catching seven receptions for 94 yards, including a 48-yarder.
Aside from the failure to establish a running game, Pitt had some sideline issues, too, with Narduzzi admitting he “wasted a timeout at one point.” He didn’t specify when it happened, but he called timeout before electing to punt on fourth-and-7 from the Penn State 37 in the first quarter.
“We thought too (darn) many times,” he said. “We have to do a better job communicating as coaches.”
After Tre Tipton downed Kirk Christodoulou’s punt at the 2, Penn State flipped the field with Journey Brown’s 85-yard run that led to a touchdown. When Devyn Ford scored from the 1 two plays later, Pitt had only 10 players on the field.
Narduzzi was pleased with Christodoulou efforts.
“Good question,” he said, relieved when a reporter brought up a positive aspect of the game. “He did a heckuva job, as good a football game as he’s played. He pinned them down (four times inside the 20-yard line). He was bombing. It’s great for his confidence. He was a weapon.”
Christodoulou averaged 45.2 yards and Penn State’s Blake Gillikin finished at 42.4, with six inside the 20.
It was a game for punters. Not so much for Pitt running backs.