Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: Syracuse, close games and more
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The 3-2-1 Column: Syracuse, close games and more

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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re getting ready for Pitt-Syracuse, trying to find a way to avoid close games, discussing the newest hoops commit and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Here’s the stretch run
Pitt’s stretch run kind of started two weeks ago with the Duke game. That was the separation point between the nonconference schedule and the final seven games, all against ACC opponents. But then came the off week at the exact midpoint of the season - six games before, six games after - and now it’s really the stretch run.

So let’s talk expectations again. We’ll do this every week, because expectations are a constantly moving target, aren’t they? Right now, the expectation, the bare minimum, is eight wins. Pitt has to get to eight, at the very least. That means a 4-2 record in this stretch run and would probably set the Panthers up for what should be a winnable bowl game. That would mean nine wins - if they pull it off - for the first time in 10 years.

That’s cause for something. Maybe not celebration, but something approaching it.

But 4-2 is the bottom of the acceptable outcomes in the final six games. And I suspect there would be some disappointment if Pitt only wins four of the next six. I mean, I know that every loss will get the coach fired from a fan perspective, but if the Panthers sit at 8-4 on Dec. 1, there will be some measured disappointment as fans look at a solid finish for the team with a chance to put an exclamation point on the season.

That’s a good place to be, but it’s not what the team should be shooting for. The aim should be higher, like 5-1 in the final six.

It won’t be easy to get five wins out of these next six games. I don’t say that because Pitt is set up to face a murderer’s row of opponents; I say that because the first six games this season haven’t been easy either, regardless of opponent. The Panthers have to get out of this habit of playing games close into the fourth quarter (more on that in a minute). If they can show they’re capable of a couple “comfortable” wins, then the urgency in winning nine - and the reality of winning nine - will grow.

Right now, from my perspective, that’s the focus: win four or five of these final six games to get a chance for nine or 10 wins in the bowl game. That’s the long and short of it, and I think that either of those two finishes would be a strong boost into the offseason and recruiting for the 2021 class.

But we also can’t ignore the possibility that the Coastal Division is still in play. Right now, four teams have one conference loss - Pitt, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina - with the latter three all to play each other, so only one of those three teams has a chance of staying at one loss. That gives Pitt some control over its own destiny, unless Virginia beats Duke and UNC and keeps its losses to one.

None of the teams in the Coastal look great, though. Virginia is beatable. So is Pitt, for that matter. But if the Panthers continue to improve this season - improve on offense and maintain the defense - then they’re likely going to have a shot at the division in the final weeks of November.

First things first, of course: go to the Carrier Dome and take care of Syracuse.

This is a big problem
I’m not going to do the sportswriter-guy thing where I tell the fans that they’re not paying enough attention to a certain element of the team, but…

Okay, I’m going to do that a little bit, but not too much because I know that the fans who read these columns are up on everything Pitt-related; you already know all the issues, all the things that can potentially hold the team back. So let me tell you one that has me concerned:

Penalties.

To put it bluntly, Pitt is one of the worst teams in the country with penalties. Only eight teams in FBS have been called for more penalties than the Panthers, and only six teams average more penalties per game. It’s been especially bad of late, with 28 penalties in the Delaware and Duke games.

Now, I know the ACC is biased against Pitt and all the calls go against the Panthers and the refs were trying to bolster the conference bluebloods by throwing a lot of flags on Pitt. I’m sure that would be the reaction a lot of people have to the Panthers’ 15 penalties for 145 yards in Durham.

But what about the 13 penalties for 115 yards in the Delaware game? I don’t think there was any ACC bias there. Or the 10 flags in the Ohio game.

Plus, there’s no bias inherent in calling false starts (Pitt has 12 of those this season, including five against Ohio and three against Delaware). There wasn’t any bias in calling the power trio of intentional grounding/illegal shift/illegal touching at Duke. And even if you disagree with some of the personal foul flags in the Duke game, there were so many called - six officially, plus one that was offset by a Duke penalty - that not all of them were questionable.

That’s a big problem, and it’s one that Pitt absolutely has to get cleaned up. Pass interference penalties, I can understand those; with the way the Panthers play in the secondary and the aggressive approach that Pat Narduzzi and his staff encourage, those flags are going to come. 11 of them plus three defensive holding calls is a bit too many for my liking, but I think you’d mostly take that tradeoff for the way Dane Jackson (three pass interference flags), Damarri Mathis (three pass interference and one defensive holding) and Jason Pinnock have been playing.

But eight personal fouls, two unsportsmanlike conducts, all of those false starts and an offside call on an opponent’s fourth down? That speaks to discipline. Quite frankly, the Panthers have to be smarter than that. Pitt isn’t good enough to give an opponent all of those free yards and expect to keep winning. I don’t think penalties have directly led to either of the team’s two losses this season, but you’re playing with fire when you are that careless on the field.

And if you want to tell me that Pitt is fighting an uphill battle with penalties, that ACC refs are out to get the Panthers and they are going to suffer because of it…I mean, I don’t entirely agree or disagree with you, so I’ll just say this:

There will be bad calls and good calls. The best thing Pitt can do is make it more difficult for officials to find opportunities to throw flags. Want to avoid getting called for a late hit out of bounds? Don’t hit a guy late out of bounds. Want to avoid getting called for offsides? Don’t jump. Want to avoid getting called for a false start? Watch the ball and listen to the cadence.

Be more disciplined. Be smarter. Don’t give the opponent an extra advantage.

It’s been close
Do you know how long it’s been since Pitt had a comfortable win at the Carrier Dome?

If not, I’ll tell you.

It’s been nine years.

The year was 2010. Dave Wannstedt was in the last of many years as a head coach and Tino Sunseri was in the first of many years as a starting quarterback. Pitt’s expectations after the 10-win season of 2009 were taking a back seat to a host of off-field issues and losses to all three quality opponents the team had faced that season.

The times were changing for Pitt football, although we probably didn’t realize it on Oct. 16, 2010. Pitt walked into the Carrier Dome that day with a 2-3 record, having lost the opener at Utah, gotten blown out by Miami two games later and then lost at Notre Dame in a classic Wannstedt defeat (you know, a couple turnovers, a fumbled field goal, an ill-advised fake punt, the usual).

But if Pitt was feeling down from its performance to that point in the season, there were no signs of it on the turf in Syracuse. Devin Street raced 79 yards on a screen pass to open the scoring and Pitt built its lead from there with touchdowns by Ray Graham, Mike Shanahan, Dion Lewis and Ricky Gary - an 80-yard interception return by the Stickster.

Syracuse could never come back from that, and the Panthers capped their scoring with the first of Brock DeCicco’s two career touchdown receptions, setting the final score at 45-14.

It was Pitt’s biggest margin of victory in a game that season and one of only two times the Panthers beat a power-conference team by 30 points under Wannstedt (a 41-7 win over Louisville in 2008 was the other).

Since then, Pitt has only had two 30-point wins over Power Five opponents, beating Duke 56-14 in 2016 and beating Virginia Tech 52-22 last year. But that’s beside the point; the real point is that ever since that 45-14 game in 2010, Pitt’s trips to the Carrier Dome have been anything but comfortable.

The next time the Panthers made the trip north, it was 2012 and Paul Chryst was the coach. Pitt lost that game, 14-13. The Panthers returned to the Carrier Dome the next year thanks to the ACC’s scheduling gurus and came out with a 17-16 win after Aaron Donald blocked an extra point. Narduzzi led the charge into the Dome two years later and won after a fake punt on fourth down led to a game-winning field goal; the score of that one was 23-20. Two years ago, the three-point deficit went in the home team’s advantage, as Syracuse won 27-24 despite Kenny Pickett’s redshirt getting burned by Ben DiNucci’s chinstrap.

So in the four Pitt-Syracuse games at the Carrier Dome since the Panthers’ 45-14 win in 2010, each team has won twice and all four contests have been decided by a combined total of eight points. Pitt has a one-point win and a three-point win in that span and so does Syracuse. They’ve all been close, hard-fought games that went to the wire.

So while there are reasons to believe that Pitt should get a win in this year’s trip to the Dome, there’s also a fair amount of historical precedent for it not being a comfortable victory and certainly not easy. Throw in this Pitt team’s seeming desire to play every game this season close to the end and you’ve got the past and the present combining for what should be another nail-biter.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

How can you avoid the close ones altogether?
Of course, Pitt hasn’t just been playing close games at the Carrier Dome. The Panthers’ last four games this season have all been one-score affairs, and while they have come out on top in three of those four - the most recent three - any coach or player will tell you that it’s a dangerous way to live.

That’s especially true when these haven’t just been one-score games; they’ve been one-score games decided in the fourth quarter. We all know this, but it bears repeating: Pitt has had to stage a fourth-quarter comeback to win each of the last three games. While that’s very exciting to watch and the outcomes have certainly been favorable for Pitt, it’s not exactly the kind of thing you want to make a habit of. At some point along the way, the Panthers need to find some comfortable wins.

Now, they’re embarking on a six-game stretch of ACC opponents with half of those games on the road; “easy” and “comfortable” probably aren’t likely to describe most of the remaining games. But there are probably things Pitt can do to increase its chances of not having to rely on fourth-quarter comebacks to win games.

The first and most obvious answer is to score more, especially in the second half. Pitt has scored five second-half touchdowns in six games this season; growing that number a bit would probably help keep the games out of reach, although I should point out that all five second-half touchdowns in 2019 have come in the last three games - otherwise known as the three games where they won with fourth-quarter comebacks.

There’s certainly something to be said for this team finding a way to win each of the last three games in the final 15 minutes, and if there’s an ideal time to start getting some second-half offense, it would be in games where you’re trailing after three quarters. But generating more consistent offense and scoring touchdowns more consistently would obviously go a long way.

And then there’s the matter of turnovers. Pitt has committed nine this season - five interceptions and four fumbles - and seven of them have led to touchdowns. What’s worse is that the Panthers have had four second-half turnovers in the last two games and all four have resulted in touchdowns.

Why did Delaware have a lead in the fourth quarter? How did Duke come back from being down 23 points? Because they scored short-field touchdowns off turnovers. Delaware took a 14-10 lead in the third quarter with a 21-yard touchdown drive after recovering a Maurice Ffrench fumble. Duke went from 26-3 to 26-10 by recovering a Paris Ford fumbled punt at the 4; from 26-10 to 26-18 with a Dontavius Butler-Jenkins fumble at the 43; and 26-24 after intercepting Kenny Pickett at the 25.

Three turnovers made it so Duke could cut a lead from 23 points to two points and only have to gain 72 total yards.

I’ve made a big deal week after week about Pitt’s defense being very stingy when opponents get the ball on their own side of the field and have to drive 50+ yards for a touchdown. The current number is six; the Panthers have given up six of those drives all season - an 8.3% success rate when the opponent takes possession on its own side of the 50.

I don’t know if that is going to continue, but even if the defense lets up a little, Pitt’s offense and special teams can help the cause quite a bit by simply not turning the ball over. You don’t have to score a touchdown every drive; just try to not give it to the other guy with a short field in front of him.

UCF scored one touchdown off of turnovers. Delaware scored two. And Duke had three. Cut back on the turnovers and those games probably look a little different - maybe a little more comfortable.

How does this fit into the class?
There was recruiting news in basketball this week, as Jeff Capel landed commitment No. 2 for the 2020 class on Tuesday. It came from Brooklyn forward Max Amadasun, a three-star prospect who chose Pitt over offers from Penn State, UMass, Old Dominion, Rhode Island, Saint Louis and St. John’s.

Given the caliber of targets Capel has been pursuing in this class, Amadasun sticks out as having somewhat of a less-impressive offer sheet, and the scouting report seems to follow suit:

He’s a big kid at 6’10” but an unrefined project, a player who will probably need some time developing in the program before he’s really ready to contribute.

I won’t say the commitment was a head-scratcher, though, because the reality is, Pitt needs players like Amadasun. Ideally, Capel and company could land three or four recruits every year and those guys would walk in and be ready to play right away. But that’s not what’s going to happen in most instances, particularly when it comes to forwards.

Sure, some young forwards are going to have to play early; Karim Coulibaly, for instance, is going to be in the rotation for Pitt this season. And Capel will need to get ready-to-play prospects in the post as often as he can. But programs like Pitt are also going to need players like Amadasun, developmental prospects who can spend a year or two or three in the program growing and becoming ACC-ready before they’re counted on.

That’s what Amadasun seems to be, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, there have been some positive reviews on his skill set, particularly the way he plays around the rim on both ends of the court. That’s something Pitt could definitely stand to gain a bit - stronger play at the rim - and Amadasun should help out in that regard.

I also don’t think Amadasun’s commitment changes anything with Pitt’s bigger plans for forwards in the class. Specifically, I don’t think it reflects on Pitt’s pursuit of Cleveland four-star John Hugley; he’s announcing his commitment today and Pitt is thought to be the likely choice, if not the out-and-out favorite.

Getting Hugley to go with Amadasun and Noah Collier makes a nice trio for the class with the No. 1 priority - guard RJ Davis - still out there, not to mention other top targets like Earl Timberlake. We’ve known for awhile that this class could potentially get pretty big in terms of quantity, and it certainly seems to be heading that way with five looking like the target number. The math may not work on that right now - Pitt enters the season with two seniors and one available scholarship spot - but coaches have a way of knowing how many scholarships they’re ultimately going to have for each class, and the numbers tend to work out.

If Pitt lands Davis and manages to grab Timberlake to go with Amadasun, Collier and Hugley, it would probably be Capel’s best overall class - out of three - and should make the Panthers a mainstay of the ACC’s upper half.

ONE PREDICTION

Let’s see, what to predict…

Last week I said that Kenny Pickett will get to 3,000 passing yards this season; I won’t be proven wrong or right on that one for awhile, so I’ll let that simmer. Pitt has continued its streak of holding opponents under their season averages for points and yards and I could probably predict that for tonight’s game, but I already did that one for UCF so I don’t want to repeat a prediction. I could predict that the Panthers’ defense will get a turnover, but in light of having six takeaways at Duke, that’s not quite as hot of a take as it would have been earlier in the season.

There’s always the sack total. I looked a little bit online to see if I could find an over/under on sacks in this game but couldn’t turn anything up. Given that Pitt is tied for second in the nation and Syracuse is No. 15 in sacks, I’m guessing there will be a bunch of those, so I could predict some big number like 13 or 11.5 combined between the two teams, but that seems boring.

Maybe I’ll go back to my standby “wild” prediction: the Habakkuk Baldonado interception. Before each Pitt game, there’s a round of predictions among a few people in the press box, usually something a bit off-the-wall, and sometimes it gets close. I’ve been calling for a Baldonado interception pretty much all season, so when he grabbed a fumble recovery at Duke, I felt like it was a half-win.

So I’m going to stick with that. Syracuse is going to try to negate Pitt’s pass rush by throwing quick screens, and if there’s a play call that could end up in a defensive end’s hands, it’s a screen pass. I think the Orange will overlook the redshirt freshman - even though he shouldn’t be a secret any longer with the season he’s having - and I think Tommy DeVito will offer up a screen pass without realizing how long and athletic Baldonado really is.

Whether or not Baldonado scores a touchdown on his pick depends on where the play is on the field, but I’m calling an interception for the redshirt freshman defensive end. And if it happens that Patrick Jones or Deslin Alexandre picks off a screen pass instead, I’m counting that as a win.

Speaking of which, I think Pitt should win this game. I won’t make that my prediction because simply predicting a win or a loss seems boring, but I do think it should happen. Syracuse’s offensive line has been a big weakness, and that should play into Pitt’s biggest strength. As long as the Panthers’ defense keeps its collective foot on the pedal, the offense will have time to get something going, even if it takes a few drives because the Orange have some talent on defense.

It might be a close one, but I think Pitt takes it.

And Habakkuk Baldonado will get that first career interception. Amir Watts had one against Syracuse last year; now it’s Baldonado’s turn.