PISCATAWAY, NJ - In Pitt's 34-10 blowout defeat at the hands of Rutgers at Highpoint Solutions Stadium on Saturday, everyone fell short.
Inevitably, the focus in the aftermath of the game will be on the ineffective offensive performance, but the reality is that there were more than a few cooks in the kitchen for Pitt on Saturday, as each phase of the game contributed to the loss that dropped the Panthers to 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big East.
The special teams units were a comedy of errors against Rutgers. After Pitt kicked a field goal to take a 3-0 lead early in the first quarter, the Panthers were offsides on the ensuing kickoff and then kicked the ball out of bounds when forced to re-kick.
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Pitt then had two penalties on special teams late in the second quarter. First there was an illegal substitution flag when Antwuan Reed didn't get off the field quickly enough before a Rutgers punt; then the Panthers drew another flag when two players wearing No. 5 - Cameron Saddler and Ejuan Price - were on the field together.
Both penalties were declined, as Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano wanted to punt from the Pitt 40 rather than the 35. But the biggest special teams gaffe came at the start of the fourth quarter. Pitt had just scored to cut Rutgers' lead to 20-10 and the Panthers looked like they were gaining momentum. Then Rutgers returner Jeremy Deering took the kickoff 74 yards to give the Scarlet Knights possession at the Pitt 14.
Rutgers scored a touchdown three plays later.
"You have to give Rutgers a lot of credit…I thought they did a great job," Pitt coach Todd Graham said after the game. "Their guys played extremely hard, and I don't want to say one word to take away from the job that Rutgers did tonight. They did a tremendous job."
The touchdown that was scored after the kickoff return was one of three that Rutgers punched in from a short distance, as Pitt's defense was put in a tough field position several times throughout the game. In fact, twice Rutgers was given the ball inside the 20, and both drives resulted in touchdowns.
While those starting positions are difficult to handle for a defense, Pitt needed its defense to force field goals in those situations in order to keep the game in reach for the Panthers' offense.
"Our mentality is, we want to bend but not break, and we don't care where we go on the field, whether it's their one-yard line or our one-yard line," redshirt senior linebacker Max Gruder said. "We want to stop them from scoring."
Ultimately, Rutgers' scoring came from two field goals, two short-field touchdowns, an interception returned for a touchdown, and a 61-yard drive that featured a 60-yard screen pass. For the most part, Pitt's defense was able to hold the Scarlet Knights in check and prevent extended drives. But Rutgers' offense did hold a time-of-possession advantage of nearly 10 minutes, and while the Scarlet Knights didn't drive the length of the field, they did hold the ball and gain just enough first downs to keep Pitt's offense on the sidelines.
Still, when the offense took the field, not much good happened. Pitt committed four turnovers and had 14 drives of four plays or less in the loss.
"First and foremost, I can tell you that it's my job to get our team ready, and the responsibility for every single thing tonight goes right here on me," Graham said. "We didn't have our guys ready to play. And they came out and whooped our tail."
"The blame goes on everybody; there were breakdowns in all areas," Gruder said. "I think it's silly to blame one person, and it definitely wasn't on Coach Graham's shoulders."