3-game losing streak leads to more questions, tests for Pitt
After Pitt lost to Clemson in the ACC championship game, coach Pat Narduzzi was asked if the team made progress from 2017.
He appeared irritated and offended by the question.
“I think we won five games last year,” he said. “Five is not as good as seven. We’re still Coastal champs. Our kids have earned that.”
Now, after losing 14-13 to Stanford in the Sun Bowl and concluding the season on a three-game losing streak (including two losses to unranked teams), Narduzzi said his belief hasn’t wavered.
“We got there (to the ACC title game), and there are a lot of people who would like to be there,” he said on the last day of 2018.
But that question is no longer as relevant as the next one: How does Pitt repair its broken passing game?
During Pitt’s three-game collapse, quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 43.2 percent of his passes (29 of 67) for 274 yards. Overall, he threw for more than 197 yards only once in 14 games.
In the Sun Bowl, he was sacked twice, hurried five times and fought through some vicious hits from the Stanford pass rush. His receivers often failed to get open (a season-long problem), forcing him to throw into tight windows. As usual, there were no attempts at screen passes or targeting a tight end.
But he had a series of poor plays on his own that included a failure to properly read the defense and inaccurate passes. He was 11 for 29 with no touchdowns for the seventh time this season. He also occasionally threw one way while his targets ran elsewhere.
No one’s perfect, but those plays shouldn’t happen in the 14th game of the season.
“We have to make plays. We have to call a better game,” Narduzzi said. “We have to do it all.”
The need to “call a better game” is a reference to offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and play caller Shawn Watson, who just concluded his second season at Pitt.
Narduzzi said he plans to evaluate “every part of the program,” but when he was asked if he anticipates making any staff changes, he said he didn’t want to talk about it.
Then, he did.
“I like our staff right now. I like our players,” he said. “We’re going to digest this football game.”
He also seemed to credit his play-caller when he was asked where his confidence in Watson stands.
“High,” he said. Then, he repeated the word. “High.”
“What’s (Stanford’s) confidence in their coordinator?” he said, picking up a stat sheet. “He had 208 yards. We had 344. I don’t know.”
If Watson goes, that would make four offensive coordinators in five seasons for Narduzzi. Does he want that type of instability in his offense, especially with a returning quarterback who has worked with no other coordinator at Pitt? Also, Watson and offensive line coach Dave Borbely have a strong personal and working relationship that goes back years and is part of the reason for Pitt having the third-ranked run game in the ACC (228 yards per game).
Pitt lost because it failed to score touchdowns after two trips inside the 10-yard line. Alex Kessman kicked two chip-shot field goals and missed badly on a 55-yard attempt that would have given Pitt a one-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Why not punt in that situation? Kessman holds the school record for the most field goals of 50 yards or longer (six) in Pitt history. It probably was Narduzzi’s best shot.
Clearly, the game was lost on offense. The defense did its job.
Stanford’s K.J. Costello, a second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback who threw for more than 323 yards seven times, completed only 6 of 17 passes for 105 yards and was sacked three times.
Through three quarters, Stanford failed on all eight of its third-down attempts and totaled 101 yards. The Cardinal recovered in the fourth quarter and moved to the Pitt 2. They scored the winning touchdown when Pitt defensive end Dewayne Hendrix forced Costello to fumble and running back Cameron Scarlett caught the ball out of the air in the end zone.
“Just like they didn’t draw it up,” CBS game analyst Gary Danielson said.
Looking at his stat sheet, Narduzzi recited the numbers. Pitt had more first downs (18-12) and yards gained — total (344-208), rushing (208-103) and passing (136-105) — than Stanford.
“It almost makes me want to fall over,” he said. “It doesn’t add up that that score is 13-14. That’s really the only stat that matters.”
What it does add up to is Pitt’s second consecutive non-winning season (7-7) and its fifth with seven losses in the past eight years.
Next season, Pitt loses four of five starters on the offensive line and two 1,000-yard running backs.
Narduzzi, Pickett and, especially, the past three recruiting classes will be put to the test.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .