SYRACUSE - Even good teams, teams with realistic aspirations to national relevance and title hopes, can ill afford to make too many mistakes in a game.
Teams that are not that good, teams that don’t have realistic aspirations to national championships and are quickly finding themselves setting bowl eligibility as a goal, really can’t afford mistakes.
Pitt is in the latter category, and on Saturday at the Carrier Dome, the Panthers made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball to get what could have been a key third win in 2017.
The errors were present right from the start. On Syracuse’s game-opening drive, a false cadence from Eric Dungey - in this case, a clap - got Pitt’s defensive line to jump offsides, seeming to hand Syracuse a first down on fourth-and-1; fortunately for the Panthers, Dungey’s post-flag heave to the end zone was caught after receiver Steve Ishmael pushed off on cornerback Avonte Maddox, cancelling out both penalties and leading to a replay of fourth down (the Orange got it on a three-yard run by 260-pound tight end Chris Elmore).
Two plays later, the Panthers again bit on Dungey’s fake clap, turning second-and-8 into a more manageable second-and-3 at the Pitt 23. Syracuse got a little closer to the end zone before settling for a field goal.
On Syracuse’s second scoring drive, near the end of the third quarter, some post-whistle activity led to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Dewayne Hendrix, which moved Syracuse’s line of scrimmage from its own 34 to the 49 - a huge chunk of yards with the Orange in a two-minute drill. Four plays later, Syracuse was in the end zone.
The worst came on Syracuse’s first drive of the third quarter. With a 13-10 lead, Pitt’s defense forced Syracuse into a third-and-10 at the Panthers’ 46 and made a stop when Dungey’s pass fell incomplete. But after the pass left Dungey’s hands, redshirt freshman linebacker Chase Pine didn’t pull up and laid into the Syracuse quarterback with a hit on the visitors’ sideline.
Another 15 yards for the Orange and another fresh set of downs. Five plays later, Syracuse was in the end zone again.
The missed opportunities and mistakes kept coming. Rashad Weaver had his hands on a pass but couldn’t corral the interception; Syracuse scored a field goal on that drive. And the Orange got the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 35-yard pass when Ishmael was being covered by Phillipie Motley, who didn’t play in the first five games; Pat Narduzzi said it was “my fault for putting him in there.”
And those were just the errors on defense. Pitt’s offense converted just 3-of-13 third-down attempts, killing its own momentum with regularity and failing to carry over just about any of the momentum from last week’s offensive outburst.
“They’re probably going to be real sick to their stomach when they’re watching tape on Sunday,” Narduzzi said after the game, “because they left a lot of plays on the field, whether it be a penalty here or there or not making the catch, the throw, the block, the run, the tackle.”
And for a team like Pitt, whose 2-4 record at the midpoint of the season is tough to shrug off as a product of circumstances, the margin for error is slim - too slim to have those kinds of mistakes, even against a team like Syracuse that came in with a similar 2-3 record.
Now the Panthers are entering a six-game schedule of ACC games with an 0-2 record in the conference and some daunting opponents lined up. Pitt was able to play Syracuse to within three points despite the mistakes and errors and self-inflicted wounds; next week’s opponent, N.C. State, likely won’t be so forgiving.