Earlier this week, I wrote about Pitt having some potential issues against Youngstown State. They were a little shorthanded, a little banged up, and probably even looking ahead a little to a big matchup against Penn State next week. But despite all of that, I didn't expect the level of nail-biting we saw today as Pitt needed overtime to defeat FCS team Youngstown State, 28-21 on Saturday.
The Penguins are one of the better FCS teams out there. They played in the national championship final last year and are expected to challenge to win it all this season. Coming into the season, they were ranked in the top ten in the FCS' major polls. If you're looking for a silver lining, though, that's not necessarily it. Pitt should still be defeating teams like that pretty handily - especially at home.
Starting the game, Pitt looked pretty motivated. I don't know that I'd say they were dominant, but they got out to a 21-0 halftime lead and looked like they had the game in hand. Things fell apart after that, likely due at least in part to some mental lapses and looking ahead to next week a little early. If I'm taking anything positive away from this besides the team winning, it's probably that for a half, they did exactly what they needed to do, even if in unspectacular fashion.
Keep in mind, too, that Pitt wasn't giving up anything on offense in terms of trick plays, etc. Like last year's game was against Villanova, the Panthers really ran a pretty straightforward offense without much in the way of innovation. Pitt's offense needs to be better and I expect it will be once they open things up a little more. I would be very surprised if the offense is as bad as it looked for much of today.
The bad? Well, there was plenty of that.
First, if we're dismissing this as simply Pitt looking past the Penguins, that in itself should be discouraging and shows a lack of maturity. The Panthers can't afford to look past anyone and you'd like to think that after getting out ahead 17-3 and then seeing Youngstown State match scores with them in 2015 that they'd have kept the pressure on. But this is an almost entirely new team with new faces and if they didn't know that taking your foot off the gas is a problem, they should now.
Next, the secondary was the team's fatal flaw last year and I didn't see much today to make me think that it's much improved. it will, of course, get better when Jordan Whitehead returns from suspension, but that unit didn't have a great day. They not only gave up more than 300 passing yards to an FCS team but also managed to leave several guys open that dropped passes or were over/underthrown. The numbers could have been even higher.
Bricen Garner thankfully came away with the game-ending interception but aside from that, it's hard to be encouraged by how they played today. It's only one game and Pitt was missing its best player in the secondary. But this is still an FCS team that shouldn't have been able to move the ball as much as they did in the second half.
One problem for me was that Pitt didn't get nearly enough pressure. Amir Watts was credited with a sack and while there were some hurries recorded, I'm guessing, that didn't help the secondary get a breather. Pitt absolutely has to get more pressure than that against an FCS team. We can scream about the secondary until we're blue in the face but if the quarterback isn't under enough pressure, those guys would get burned beat there even if the Panthers had All-Americans on the field.
Looking at Pitt's own offense, it's really difficult to judge those guys since I think the playbook was scaled back so much. But I came away really unimpressed. Max Browne was lackluster, completing only about half of his passes and most of his work was limited to shorter routes so it should have been higher. Seven of his 17 receptions went to running backs and the starting wide receivers Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson each caught only one pass.
I also wasn't impressed with the running backs today. We did see Henderson get his share of carries as Pitt kept that part of the offense from Matt Canada's system, but the backs as a whole were underwhelming. Qadree Ollison led the way with 91 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries but he, Darrin Hall, and freshman A.J. Davis, who saw playing time on some crucial fourth downs, finished under four yards per carry with Ollison and Hall getting the bulk of the workload. All three are serviceable but it's not hard to figure out that replacing James Conner is harder than it looks. And where we're at with Chawntez Moss is no idea. He looked explosive earlier on last year and now he's losing carries to a true freshman and can't even get on the field when the top two guys are having only an average day?
One word of caution I'll throw out there is, hold off on the crucifying Shawn Watson bandwagon. Pitt's new offensive coordinator will take a lot of heat this week, but you might remember that Matt Canada took some last year after a pretty lackluster opener against Villanova, too. That turned out to be premature. I'm not saying Pitt's offense will turn around like that one did. Canada had several NFL players on his offense last year and it remains to be seen how many will come of this group. But I'm not ready to throw Watson under the bus yet until we see the team take on bigger chunks of the playbook.
The special teams were also somewhat disastrous with freshman Alex Kessman missing both of his field goal attempts. If you thought the shaky kicking was leaving town with the departure of Chris Blewitt, think again. This is something Kessman and Pitt are going to have to figure out. One of those kicks was inside of 30 yards and those have to be practically gimmes.
I don't think this should be all about panic. Like I said, Pitt didn't show much on offense all day long and I think part of their second-half issues were about taking the foot off the gas a little. But what frustrated me was seeing some of the individual struggles by guys on offense like Browne, the receivers, and the running backs. Even in a vanilla offense, those guys should look better playing an FCS team. Today was a good example of just how hard it is to replace an NFL quarterback, an NFL running back, and two NFL offensive linemen.