A year ago, the Pitt football program had enjoyed its second straight 8-win regular season. Those victories included big wins over rival Penn State and eventual national champion Clemson. Now, 12 months later, the program has a different feel.
The luster of those big wins wore off pretty quickly. The Panthers were taken to overtime by Youngstown State in the season opener and were beaten badly against Penn State, losing by 19 points in arguably the team’s biggest game of the season. Week Three brought an even uglier loss as Pitt was blown out of the water at home by Oklahoma State, losing 59-21.
That, it turned out, was only the beginning.
In games that didn’t figure to be blowouts at the beginning of the season, the Panthers suffered 18-point beadowns to both Georgia Tech and NC State. That gave Pitt four really bad losses in games that weren’t competitive. That’s disappointing for any team but was even more so because of the team’s ability to keep games much closer under head coach Pat Narduzzi in the past. Coming into this year, Pitt had only one game by 18 points or more under Narduzzi. This year? There were four of them.
It’s true that a loss is a loss, whether it’s by one point or 100 points. But blowout losses really take their toll on fanbases and hurt the reputation of the team. When you’re not even competitive in games, it makes it difficult to keep fans engaged and generate enthusiasm for the next season.
But it wasn’t only the blowouts that have made this a difficult year. Pitt also suffered some painful, closer losses. First, the Panthers lost by three to Syracuse, a team they routinely beat year after year. To me, that was really the one that sent the season into a spiral. Pitt had a chance to get to 3-3 with a win there and make a bowl game a real possibility. Instead, they dropped to 2-4 and really put themselves into a hole.
Then, there was an unbelievable loss to North Carolina. Pitt was not only facing the worst team in the conference but had the game at home and on a national spotlight with a Thursday night ESPN game. To go out and lay an egg there in a game you have to have just solidified what type of down year it’s been.
Finally, you had this weekend. No one expected Pitt to defeat Virginia Tech on the road but when you have a chance to win with four attempts from inside the 2-yard line and can’t get the job done, it’s just really tough to swallow.
The fan base has been through all sorts of things this year. But here’s the thing: No one would blame the team if they didn’t achieve what they did last year. Pitt lost five players to the NFL Draft and several other key seniors. This year, whether fans really bought into it much, was a rebuild of sorts. In addition, the team lost its starting quarterback and is now down to playing a true freshman. Anytime that happens, most teams are going to struggle through it and six wins instead of the eight that were predicted by many (including myself) was a more realistic expectation given what Pitt had lost.
The disappointing thing to me, though, is that things didn’t have to be quite as bad as they have been this year. If you’re a P5 team trying to be a credible program, you should never lose by 38 points at home, no matter the opponent. You should fare a little better in a rivalry game than they did against Penn State. You shouldn’t lose by nearly 20 points to teams like NC State and Georgia Tech. You shouldn’t lose to a North Carolina team decimated by injuries playing at home in a must win game. And, of course, you should be able to punch the ball in from inside of two yards when given four tries.
That, to me, is the reason why the season has not only been a failure but a significant one. If Pitt manages to defeat teams like North Carolina and score late yesterday, instead of 4-7, they’re 6-5. That’s just a huge difference.
And the disappointing thing is that, despite the personnel losses and despite the injury to quarterback Max Browne, that was still achievable.