That's a wrap on Pitt's 2013 regular season. There were ups and downs, and today's game certainly falls in that latter category. There were a number of things that went wrong for Pitt today, right from the start. Here's a link to my quick gamer from Heinz Field, and make sure to pick up tomorrow's P-G for more coverage. For now, here are a few thoughts to end the night...
- This might be the most disheartening loss of the season. Each of Pitt's six losses this year had their own unique flavor. In the Florida State game, the Panthers were blown out by a much better team. Against Navy, they blew a second-half lead. Against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, the offense couldn't put together enough plays to make it close. Against North Carolina, their comeback effort was negated by poor punt coverage. This one, though, might be the worst. Pitt was run off the field from the get-go against a team with only marginally better talent. Teams like North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke all hung with Miami, but Pitt made the Hurricanes look like they were in a different league. The final score may have only been a 10-point loss, but this game was not competitive in the second half. While I think the "came out flat" excuse doesn't really apply to the North Carolina game (Pitt dominated the first quarter of that game, just couldn't score), it certainly applied today. Especially on defense, this game looked like it was back to the Florida State game, when the cornerbacks played tentatively against talented receivers. It looked like Pitt was shellshocked by the early deficit it was in, and played that way the rest of the game.
- Special teams need to improve. No, Pitt does not need to just "hire a special teams coach." That's not the be-all, end-all solution to the problem. In fact, very few college programs have dedicated special teams coaches. Usually, it's just a position coach that holds the title. It mike make fans feel better if Chris Haering had "Special Teams Coordinator" next to his biography in the media guide, but it would do very little to actually improve the units. I think there may need to be a more clear delineation of responsibilities among the staff, but I have seen teams succeed without designated special teams coaches. I don't think a special teams coach would have helped Lafayette Pitts not fumble the ball on the opening kickoff, or even prevented Miami from blocking Matt Yoklic's punt. Ideally, though, things like the illegal substitution penalty could be avoided. That drive only ended with a field goal, but those mistakes are costly when a team has already put itself in a 14-0 hole.
- All that said, Pitt is still going to a bowl game this year. I've seen some people questioning if Pitt, even at 6-6, could get left out of a bowl game. From what I have heard, that is theoretically possible, but very, very unlikely. There are going to be some eligible teams left at home this bowl season, but Pitt could end up being one of the fairly desirable "free agents" if they don't get one of the ACC's slots. I know people rag on Pitt a lot for traveling poorly, and they do...relative to Top 25 teams. When you compare Pitt's traveling fan base to that of, say, Toledo (a MAC team likely looking for a bowl home), the Panthers look a lot better. Plus, Pitt generally rates pretty well from a TV perspective. Because of all this, it's overwhelming likely Pitt will find a home this bowl season.
I do think the bowl game is extremely important for Pitt, though, regardless of where it is or who they're playing. With a win, they can take momentum into the end of the recruiting cycle and have some positive energy heading into next season. A loss, and they're 6-7 once again with a two-game losing streak to end the year. I think there were some tangible signs of progress in year two of the Paul Chryst era, notably the win against Notre Dame (and, heck, even Duke), but it'll be a lot harder to think positive thoughts in the offseason it's another sub-.500 finish.