At the end of the first half of Saturday's game, Pitt looked as if they would hang with Louisville the entire contest. Holding onto a four-point lead at home against the ranked Cardinals, it was hard to ask for much more as a Pitt fan.
The fact is, though, a seven-point lead would have been even better. It wasn't so much the number of points, rather the momentum that was gained by the Cardinals just before the first half.
In case you missed it, Pitt head coach Paul Chryst did some gambling with about a minute to go as he went for it on 4th and short just past midfield. The Panthers didn't get it and in the closing seconds, Louisville completed a long pass play to get them into field goal range. The ensuing successful kick brought the Cardinals to within four, but more importantly, gave them a bit of momentum.
The result? A disastrous third-quarter where the Cardinals completely outclassed Pitt, scoring three touchdowns.
Game over, friends.
Now, I won't pretend that Chryst cost his team the game by going for it on 4th down instead of trusting a new long snapper to get off a clean one so Pitt could punt it away (and we saw later that Chryst may have been right not to trust the punting game there as a bad snap occurred later). But we can jump to all sorts of conclusions and say that it had a hand in the team's sluggish start in the second half. Simply put, Pitt needed to take their chances with the punting game and take what should have been a seven-point lead into halftime.
Chryst also made a questionable call in the fourth quarter as Pitt was desperately trying to pull out a comeback win. Down ten, the Panthers were driving and faced a 4th and 8 just outside of the red zone. Instead of attempting a 39-yard field goal, Pitt chose to go for it. This one wasn't as egregious as the first error because kicker Kevin Harper is pretty unsteady, connecting on only six of his eleven attempts this season. But I would argue that 4th and 8 is much different than 4th and short. Because the Panthers were down only ten points, it didn't matter which sequence Pitt scored (whether they kicked a field goal first and the touchdown later or vice versa). And despite the fact that Harper hasn't been all that accurate this season, I would have been more comfortable with a field goal 39-yard attempt than a 4th and 8 conversion against a good defense.
All in all, Chryst didn't have a great game. The offensive playcalling was very good and kept the Cardinals on their toes. But with the defense coming out so flat in the third quarter and the individual calls that were questionable, it was clear that things could have gone better.
On the offensive side of the ball, running back Ray Graham struggled to get his ground game going. He caught five passes out of the backfield, but rushed for only 20 yards on six carries. That marks the second subpar game from him and today, he was outshined by freshman star Rushel Shell. Shell also had five catches and added 96 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. It will be interesting to see how the carries are split up going forward. Graham has averaged only 2.5 yards per carry in his last two games and Shell was clearly the better back today. Chryst has a decision to make in regards to who becomes the featured back going forward, despite the fact that both will get carries.
Pitt goes on the road to face Buffalo next weekend.