A year after putting up 76 points and scoring with ease against Syracuse, Pitt’s offensive inefficiency cost it the annual matchup and, along with it, most reasonable chances for a successful season.
Pitt rotated through nine offensive linemen during a 27-24 loss to Syracuse (3-3, 1-1) in the Carrier Dome. It used two quarterbacks because of injury. It tried three running backs, the most effective being the converted safety.
Outside of Jordan Whitehead’s brief moments of electricity (7 carries for 73 yards), Pitt sputtered once again.
“It’s making plays,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Each play is somebody else. We can sit there and blame the offensive line and say they’re not blocking but they look pretty good when No. 9 (Whitehead) is in the game. Right? So, what is the problem? Is it rotating the line? Is it the guy carrying the ball? I don’t know. No. 9 looks really good.”
Among the missed plays Saturday was Browne failing to connect with a wide-open Quadree Henderson behind the defense on a broken play and wide receiver Aaron Matthews failing to bring down a pass from backup quarterback Ben DiNucci behind the Syracuse defense in the third quarter.
Pitt finished the game converting just 3 of 13 third-down chances and, after setting a handful of single-game records while collecting 644 yards a year earlier, the Panthers settled for 358.
Six games into the season, the Panthers (2-4, 0-2) haven’t shown enough offense as it heads into the more challenging half of its schedule. Without a win over a power-five opponent, Pitt faces just one team with a losing record and next hosts North Carolina State, which will come to Heinz Field owning impressive wins over Florida State and Louisville.
It will likely do so without Browne, who Narduzzi said he expected would be out at least a couple of weeks with an injury to his throwing arm.
“We knew we needed to get two in a row,” left tackle Brian O’Neill said. “We try to take it one at a time and not look at the hole, at least I don’t. Some guys might. … We needed to win this game, regardless of how many are left on the road. We needed to win this game and didn’t get it done. Disappointing.”
For much of Saturday, Pitt’s defense kept it in the game, but a pair of penalties helped sabotage an otherwise solid performance.
Syracuse tied the game just before halftime, driving down the field in the final 3 minutes with the help of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Dewayne Hendrix, the only touchdown Pitt allowed in the first half.
Then, while holding a 13-10 lead early in the third quarter, Pitt looked to have halted another Syracuse drive when backup linebacker Chase Pine committed a personal foul, giving the Orange a first down after a third-down incompletion.
The Panthers flushed Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey from the pocket, and Pine raced up from the secondary, forcing an incomplete pass. Well after Dungey released the ball, Pine kept coming, hitting him in the chest and drawing the flag.
“We had two personal fouls,” Narduzzi said. “One on Chase Pine that was a late hit on the quarterback. Unacceptable. It hurts you on a third down. Another one on Dewayne Hendrix that we’ll look at the tape on.”
“We missed a lot of tackles, a lot of execution,” Whitehead said. “Had a lot of dumb penalties.”
Five plays after the worst of them, Dungey scrambled into the end zone from 10 yards, giving Syracuse its first lead of the game at 17-13 with 6 minutes, 69 seconds left in the third quarter.
After trading field goals, Syracuse scored its final touchdown, and Pitt had just one possession with a chance to tie the game. It came with 52 seconds, a struggling offense given the ball on its 5-yard line. It ended like you would have expected.
Said Narduzzi: “We’re probably going to be real sick on Sunday when we’re watching tape.”
Chris Carlson is a freelance writer.