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Up-and-down Pitt hits high notes, low notes

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Georgia Tech's Malik Rivera pulls in an interception on a pass intended for Pitt's Tyler Sear in the third quarter Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 at Heinz Field.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt’s Kenny Pickett dives for a first down but fumbles against Albany in the third quarter Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Up one week, down the next.

Up the third week for a half, who knows what comes next?

Through three games, Pitt (2-1, 1-0) and No. 13 Virginia Tech (2-0, 1-0) hold the meaningless designation of co-leaders in the ACC Coastal. Those two, plus Georgia Tech (1-2, 0-1), are the only Coastal teams that have played a conference game.

Pitt’s record indicates some good and some bad, and when coach Pat Narduzzi met with reporters Monday, he was pleased with his review of the 24-19 victory against Georgia Tech but fretting over his team’s second-half offensive malaise.

Pitt hasn’t scored a touchdown in the second half this season, only getting points Saturday from Alex Kessman’s 33-yard field goal.

In addition, only 326 (31 percent) of Pitt’s 1,042 total yards were recorded after halftime.

This has not been a long-term problem, and it’s one that could get fixed as soon as Saturday when Pitt plays North Carolina (0-2) in Chapel Hill. Prior to this season, Narduzzi’s Pitt teams failed to score a second-half touchdown in only three of 38 games.

Nonetheless, the coach wants answers.

Perhaps the most revealing part of his news conference was how he brought up the problem without being asked.

“Why? Is it a lack of focus? What is it?” he said.

If he’s casually mentioning it to reporters, there’s a good chance his conversation with his team on the subject was a bit more intense.

“Why are we not as detailed?” he said, noting five of Pitt’s seven penalties in the Georgia Tech game (three were declined) occurred in the second half.

He conceded the face mask call against defensive end Patrick Jones II that kept alive a Georgia Tech scoring drive in third quarter could have gone either way.

“I don’t know if it was a face mask or not, looked like a helmet rub,” he said. “But we got too close to the head, and they call it, which, I don’t think was a great call. I could see why they did (call it).”

What was most disappointing to Narduzzi was that all four of the accepted penalties occurred on third or fourth down. “The money downs,” he said.

Pitt’s third-down conversion rate falls from 43 percent (15 of 35) for the entire game to 25 percent (four of 16) in the second half.

“We have to be sharper on third down and look at what we’re doing there,” he said.

The dropoff in production after halftime was a major factor in the Penn State game when a 14-6 deficit turned into a 51-6 loss. Pitt was ahead of Albany, 33-7, and Georgia Tech, 21-0, at halftime, giving the team some cushion in the second half.

Narduzzi said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is not calling plays differently in the second half. Rather, he said unforced errors are hurting the offense’s rhythm.

“We’re not making plays,” he said. “(We’re) doing the wrong things, dropping the ball, whatever it may be. We’re not executing.

“We better figure it out. We better get the second half woes of execution out of our system, or it’s going to be hard every week. Something is wrong.”

What’s right about the Panthers is how their defense and special teams functioned against Georgia Tech.

Pitt held the Yellow Jackets’s option offense to 19 points. Only Clemson, Georgia and Boston College allowed Georgia Tech fewer points in five of its past 39 games.

“We emphasize we’re going to get 11 guys (to the football),” Narduzzi said. “We’re going to gang tackle, and that’s the emphasis every week.”

After three games, Narduzzi isn’t ready to call the defensive unit the best in his four years at Pitt, but he did say, “That was one of the best defenses against Georgia Tech, let’s put it that way.”

After holding and kicking problems in the Penn State game, Pitt’s special teams contributed by stopping a fake punt try, downing a punt at the 1 and keeping Georgia Tech away from its own onside kick late in the game.

You can add Kessman’s first field goal of the season to the list, but Narduzzi prefers six points to three.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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