Friedlander: Overtime loss to Tennessee leaves Pitt, Pat Narduzzi asking 'what if?'
Saturday’s Johnny Majors Classic between Pittsburgh and Tennessee actually was a classic, with the issue not settled until the Panthers’ final pass in overtime fell incomplete.
The play that affected the outcome most, however, happened much earlier in the game.
It came with 21 seconds left in the first half with Pitt taking over at its own 37 following a Tennessee punt. Instead of taking a knee, content to head into halftime trailing by just 4, Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi decided to get aggressive.
That decision ended up with his team losing the ball, its starting quarterback and ultimately the game when Kedon Slovis fumbled while being sacked by the Vols’ Tyler Baron.
Not only did Tennessee gain possession, leading to a field goal that would loom large later in the game, but Slovis did not return because of an injury suffered on the play.
The Panthers never fully recovered on the way to a 34-27 defeat that will leave them, their fans and Narduzzi with enough “what ifs” to last an entire season.
It’s still early September and there’s a lot more football to be played in 2022. But once all is finally said and done in December or January, that one decision, this one game will almost certainly be the one Pitt’s coach looks back on and wishes he could have over again.
“Missed opportunities,” Narduzzi said. “Right before the half when we (lost the fumble), I thought we could have scored a touchdown there, but who knows?”
It cannot be understated how potentially costly this loss is.
A win against an SEC opponent, coming on the heels of last week’s victory against West Virginia, would have injected the Panthers squarely into the College Football Playoff conversation. While the loss doesn’t eliminate them from consideration as long as they run the regular season table and repeat the ACC championship they won a year ago, it does make their path to the final four that much more difficult.
That won’t matter, of course, if Slovis’ injury is severe enough to sideline him for any length of time.
Because while his replacement Nick Patti made a couple of memorable throws despite being hobbled himself, Pitt’s offense went nowhere fast for most of the time he was in the game.
The numbers don’t lie.
Slovis was 14-of-24 passing for 195 yards and a touchdown while averaging 8.1 yards per completion in the first half. Patti was 9-of-20 for 79 yards and a touchdown while averaging only 4.0 yards per pass.
As a team, the Panthers gained 281 yards with 17 first downs with Slovis in the game and just 129 with 7 first downs without him.
And yet, because of a defense that kept Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker in check and forced a turnover while limiting the Vols to just a field goal over the final 30 minutes of regulation and a special teams unit that blocked a punt and recovered a fumble, Pitt still nearly won the game.
Which brings us to the other decision over which Narduzzi might end up losing sleep.
After squandering a pair of scoring opportunities with missed field goals of 36 and 35 yards, the offense finally – agonizingly – took advantage of a short field to get into the end zone when Jared Wayne made a tough diving catch on Patti’s best pass of the night with just over 2 minutes remaining.
Considering the circumstances, the situation screamed for a 2-point conversion try to put Pitt ahead. But when Narduzzi needed to be aggressive, he decided to play it safe and kick the extra point for the tie.
Maybe he was counting on MJ Devonshire or someone else on his defense to produce a repeat performance of last week’s late-game heroics against West Virginia.
Or perhaps he was haunted by his earlier gamble that backfired.
“I don’t think it was a hard decision at all,” Narduzzi said afterward. “You want to take it to overtime. You don’t want to lose the game right there.”
And yet by kicking the point and playing not to lose, that’s what he essentially did.
Considering the circumstances, Pitt’s problems moving the ball and Tennessee’s abundance of playmakers – led by Hooker, who threw for 325 yards and made several key plays with his legs – the result seemed almost inevitable once the game went past regulation.
It only took 2 plays for the Vols to score what would become the winning touchdown and despite another gallant 4th-down completion by Patti, this one to Konata Mumpfield, the Panthers had no answer.
Instead, they were left with questions, one in particular that’s likely to haunt them for the rest of the season.