Pitt lends Virginia helping hand in season-opening loss
Pat Narduzzi trusted his quarterback Saturday night and paid the price in Pitt’s 30-14 loss to Virginia at Heinz Field.
Opening night was supposed to trigger the rebirth of Pitt’s passing game, with junior quarterback Kenny Pickett directing an offense designed by first-year coordinator Mark Whipple.
Instead, it was a disaster for much of the first quarter and the entire second half as Pitt suffered its first opening-day loss since 2013.
Narduzzi was displeased with almost everything that happened in front of crowd announced at 47,144.
“We missed throws. We dropped balls. We didn’t protect the quarterback,” Pitt’s coach said. “We didn’t tackle as well as we need to.”
Narduzzi took the blame but also was surprised by how his team played.
“It starts with me,” he said. “I have to do a better job of getting them ready.”
Then, he added, “I thought emotionally and physically, they were ready to go.”
The plan was to pass the ball — a clear departure from what Narduzzi usually likes to do — but Pitt’s aerial game was out of sync. Pickett threw two interceptions in a game for the first time in his collegiate career.
“We knew the box was going to be stacked up pretty good (against the run), and it was,” Narduzzi said. “We had guys open in the passing game. We had what we wanted. We have to connect.”
“It was just a sloppy game for a Week 1 game,” Pickett said. “We’ve got to focus on our offense and our timing and get back to it this week.”
Pitt used the no-huddle offense to some success in the first half and took a 14-13 lead into the locker room. But the Panthers were scoreless after halftime, and Virginia scored 17 points.
“We showed glimpses,” Pickett said, “but if you show glimpses you’re not going to win the game. You’ve got to be consistent the whole game. As coach said, there are plays to be made and we didn’t make them.”
Pitt made it too easy for Virginia, all but handing the Cavaliers two touchdowns. Virginia scored three touchdowns, and the first two were set up deep inside Pitt territory by a blocked punt and an interception.
“It’s hard to win a football game when you have a blocked punt and two interceptions,” Narduzzi said. “That’s 14 points right there.”
Pitt’s defense sacked Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins three times — once by defensive end Deslin Alexandre, who is subbing for the injured Rashad Weaver — but forced no turnovers. Perkins completed 20 of 34 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
The Panthers were unable to generate any momentum against the preseason ACC Coastal Division favorite with their running game. A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley combined for 48 yards on 15 carries.
Pickett had minimal success as a scrambler and completed 21 of a career-high 41 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked four times, including two in the fourth quarter while Pitt was trying to trim the Virginia lead. Free safety Joey Blount sacked Pickett, who then threw an interception to Blount on the next play. With 7 minutes, 40 seconds left, Virginia’s victory was secure.
Virginia added its final touchdown on a 10-yard run by Wayne Taulapapa with 32 seconds left.
The Cavaliers scored on their first two possessions of the second half to take a 23-14 lead.
Perkins converted two third downs with a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Terrell Jana and a 27-yard scramble made possible when he sidestepped blitzing cornerback Jason Pinnock. That led to Brian Delaney’s 45-yard field goal, his last of three.
On Pitt’s next possession, linebacker Matt Gahm’s interception at the Pitt 29 set up Perkins’ 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Hasise Dubois. After that, Pitt had no answers. Pickett threw for only 63 yards in the second half, completing only nine of 21 passes.
On its first two offensive series of the game, Pickett completed only one of six while going three-and-out twice. The last pass of the first series was batted down by Virginia defensive end Mandy Alonso.
After the first punt, Virginia took over at its 25-yard line and quickly moved into Pitt territory. After getting as far as the Pitt 12, Virginia settled for Delaney’s 39-yard field goal. He also hit from 36 yards in the second quarter.
Pitt punted after its second series, but the kick was blocked by Noah Taylor, and the Cavaliers had a first down at the Panthers’ 19. That led to the game’s first touchdown, a 2-yard flip from Perkins to Chris Sharp.
Pitt and Pickett recovered on the first possession of the second quarter. He was 3 for 3, including a 59-yard pass-and-run to Davis, who scored four plays later on a 2-yard burst.
Pickett enjoyed his finest moments of the first half on Pitt’s final possession.
Finally getting the hang of the no-huddle offense, the Panthers moved from their 20-yard line and scored in 14 plays on a drive that lasted 5:34.
Pickett scrambled twice for first downs — 11 and 9 yards — and completed six of seven passes for 39 yards and a 3-yard touchdown to senior Tre Tipton (Apollo-Ridge) with 38 seconds left in the half.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .