No. 25 Pitt football is off to its best start of the Narduzzi era, with the defensive-minded Panthers winning their third straight game last Saturday in a hard-fought, 23-20 win over the No. 24 Louisville Cardinals.
Perhaps it was the debut of the new gray alternate jerseys, but Pitt’s heralded defense did just enough to lift the Panthers to the close victory. In fact, at times it seemed as if the team was determined to keep Louisville within reach, allowing big plays and offensive breakdowns to even the otherwise one-sided contest.
That said, the team is not allowing its mistakes to overshadow the importance of the win. Saturday’s performance proved Pitt has the strength to stifle even the most high-powered of offenses its schedule has to offer. And by beating their first ranked opponent, the Panthers will most certainly garner more national attention.
But head coach Pat Narduzzi was simply happy to escape with a win.
“Obviously we played well enough to win today,” Narduzzi said. “Kids did a heck of a job, played their tails off, 60-minute game … I’m just happy for really our entire football team. They just continue to fight and find different ways to win football games, and that’s what good teams do.”
As the season has progressed, Heinz Field has proven to be an increasingly inhospitable place for opposing quarterbacks. Syracuse and Austin Peay’s quarterbacks — who were sacked 10 times by the Panthers through games one and two — know it well, and Saturday was Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham’s turn to face the terrifying Pitt defensive line.
And it seemed the Panthers saved a little extra for Cunningham, torching the Louisville offensive line for seven sacks. Frankly, the Cardinal offense was crippled in the trenches — the team only managed 41 yards on the ground outside a single 75-yard play — and the passing attack was largely unable to develop with Cunningham under constant duress due to Pitt’s depth.
“We hold everybody to the same standard,” said redshirt senior defensive end Patrick Jones II. “No matter if you’re young or old, we expect you to have your fundamentals down, your technique down, so when it’s time for your number to be called, you can step in and play.”
Although the line set the tone for the game, Pitt’s secondary also deserves credit. By showing a variety of schemes and providing talented coverage, the Panther defensive backs prevented Louisville’s nationally renowned offense from ever shifting into gear. The secondary also came up with three crucial picks, bringing the season total to five and putting the team on track to easily surpass last year’s eight total interceptions.
But not everything went perfectly Saturday. As Pitt’s defense carried a sluggish offense against Syracuse, the Panther offense remained sluggish against Louisville.
At the crux of the issue lies Pitt’s offensive line. The front five seem unable to create a strong push on run plays — a failing their running backs pay dearly for — and their problematic pass blocking puts senior quarterback Kenny Pickett under constant pressure.
Still, Pickett was not without blame — the unit’s leader often made poor decisions at crucial points and managed only 220 yards passing along with an untimely late-game interception.
However, the team’s offensive performance was not without bright spots — after all, wins over ranked opponents are rarely all bad.
Perhaps Saturday’s most encouraging development was the reemergence of redshirt senior kicker Alex Kessman. Despite struggling earlier in the season, Kessman was red hot Saturday, connecting on three attempts and giving Pitt the needed push to win the game.
Pitt’s skill players also made strides on offense. Wide receivers Jordan Addison and Taysir Mack combined for 162 yards and two touchdowns, with Mack adding a gravity-defying touchdown run to give Pitt the lead late in the first half. The running rotation also became more settled, with sophomore running back Vincent Davis taking on most of the load.
Pitt solidified its reputation as a team capable of simply handling business on Saturday. Even though the offense struggled at times, and the defense gave up the occasional big play, both sides of the ball were always able to pick each other up.
It may have been a stressful game to watch, but the Panthers’ performance is a good omen with games against conference powers Notre Dame and Clemson looming.
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