Pittsburgh defense overpowers UMass football in season opener

  • UMass defensive back Noah Boykin defends a pass against Pittsburgh on Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The Minutemen fell 51-7. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass running back Kay’Ron Adams carries the ball against Pittsburgh on Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. He finished with 32 yards on the ground to lead the Minutemen, who fell 51-7. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/4/2021 10:11:50 PM

A different kind of Steel Curtain slammed shut on the UMass football team’s offense. Like the famed Pittsburgh Steelers defense of the 70s, the Pitt Panthers left the Minutemen little room to breathe in Saturday’s season opener at Heinz Field.

UMass failed to gain any yards on its first five plays and didn’t gain positive rushing yards in the opening half. Pittsburgh accumulated five sacks and six tackles for loss, scoring the game’s first 37 points on the way to a 51-7 victory.

“They were the better team, and they definitely looked like it,” UMass coach Walt Bells said. “They’re going to do that to a lot of people. It ain't gonna just be us. That’s a damn good defense.”

UMass (0-1) only ran for 42 yards total, but that includes 13 yards subtracted for sacks. Quarterback Tyler Lytle, making his first career start after a backup career at Colorado, missed his first five passes and started 1-of-7. He finished 14-of-31 for 167 yards.

Lytle struggled to get in rhythm with his receivers. Drops and overthrows killed early drives. Lytle had Jermaine “OC” Johnson open down the seam on UMass’ second possession in a 0-0 game but overthrew the sophomore.

“Just a little bit of self inflicted wounds that kept us in third and longs,” Bell said. “This is not the defense you want to be in third and long against.”

Despite the Minutemen’s early offensive struggles, the defense stared the Panthers straight in the eye for much of the first half. North Carolina transfer Bryce Watts made two clean open field tackles on Pitt’s first drive to force a punt, and broke up a pass down the field on the Panthers’ second possession intended for Jordan Addison.

UMass forced a turnover three plays later. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett found A.J. Davis in the middle of the field for a seven-yard completion. UMass freshman linebacker Gerrell Johnson stripped the ball, and North Carolina transfer Bryson Richardson recovered it.

The Minutemen’s second drive was a four-and-out and only extended that far because offsetting penalties necessitated a repeat of second down.

“When our defense really needed us to step up on offense, we did not do what we needed to do to help protect our defense,” Bell said.

Then Pitt remembered it could run the football. After Pickett attempted passes on eight of the Panthers’ first 10 plays, Pitt handed the ball twice to Israel Abanikanda and gained 11 yards. That set up a 15-yard play action throw to tight end Lucas Krull.

After a five-yard Abanikanda run, Pickett either scrambled or kept the ball on options three of the next four plays. He plunged into the end zone from five yards out to put Pitt on the board with 4 minutes, 56 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Pitt added a 12-yard scoring pass form Pickett to Addison 3:25 later to take a 13-0 lead into the second quarter.

UMass forced a turnover on downs on the Panthers first drive in the second quarter, as Rodney Hammond failed to pick up a fourth and one from the Minutemen’s 8.

The Minutemen also held Pitt to a field goal attempt on its next red zone trip, as the Panthers took a 19-0 lead with 5:37 to halftime.

“Coach Bell’s pregame speech was belief,” UMass senior defensive back Donte Lindsay said. “Going into that game, that was our mindset to believe. We wanted to believe we would get the win.”

UMass followed with a three-and-out, and Davis found the end zone a second time from 18 yards out with 36 seconds until halftime for a 23-0 lead.

Pitt received the second half kickoff but failed to gain a first down then punted to their 27. The Minutemen needed something productive – ideally points to stem the tide, but a long drive would have steadied the game. Kay’Ron Adams ran for two yards on first down. Then Lytle found 6-foot-6 freshman Michael Fitzgerald for the receiver’s first collegiate catch and a 10-yard gain. 

But Fitzgerald couldn’t keep possession. Pitt’s Erick Hallett ripped the ball away and recovered it at the UMass 38.

Seven plays later, Vincent Davis plowed into the end zone from six yards out, making it 30-0. Abanikanda made it 37-0 after another UMass three-and-out with 6:42 left in the third. UMass defensive backs Josh Wallace and Richardson left the drive with injuries.

“Everyone came back in the game except Bryson Richardson, but I haven’t had a chance to figure out medically what’s going on there,” Bell said.

The score ended Pickett’s day. Pitt’s three-year starter finished with 300 yards and two touchdowns through the air and also ran for another 39 yards.

UMass’ offense finally found some traction near the end of the third quarter. Pitt fumbled a snap to backup quarterback Nick Patti from the Minutemen’s 8 that UMass defensive lineman Avien Peah recovered at the 26.

Lytle hit a wide-open Johnson for a 27-yard gain then found tight end Taylor Edwards for 32 yards two plays later. Those brought the Minutemen to the Pitt 15, then a two-yard Ellis Merriweather run ended the quarter.

The fourth quarter opened with what looked like UMass’ first touchdown in three games dating back to Nov. 7, 2020, against Marshall. Lytle hit tight end Josiah Johnson, a former quarterback, after a play action fake, and Johnson dove into the end zone from 12 yards out. Or so it appeared.

Review placed him out of bounds at the 1. Pitt stuffed Ellis Merriweather on an inside run on first down. Then Lytle kept the ball on a read option play and dove into the end zone with 13:50 remaining. That made it 37-7.

UMass failed to score a touchdown in its final two games last season. They hadn’t found the end zone in 10 quarters. The Minutemen’s last touchdown was a Will Koch touchdown pass to Samuel Emilus in the second quarter against Marshall. Both are no longer with the program.

It was UMass’ first rushing touchdown since Bilal Ally went 46 yards to the house against BYU in the 2019 season finale.

The Minutemen didn’t produce many other offensive bright spots. Patti led a sub-2 minute Pitt touchdown drive to answer the score.

UMass couldn’t finish their next possession. Lytle drove the Minutemen 58 yards in 12 plays across 6:53 to the Pitt 17. Redshirt freshman Cameron Carson missed a 35-yard field goal. 

The Panthers tacked on one more touchdown with a third-string quarterback, then the Minutemen turned to backup Garrett Dzuro to close the game out.

“There’s no such thing as moral victories, but our sideline was very composed. I thought our kids did a good job staying together when things got really ugly there,” Bell said. “I thought they were really positive, which is a huge step for us. It has not been that way for the last two years.”

There isn’t much relief on the horizon for UMass. The Minutemen host Boston College at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, the Eagles first visit to Amherst since 1982. BC blasted FCS opponent Colgate 51-0 on Saturday.

“You always learn lessons when you get the sting of a loss,” Bell said. “We got to see somebody with a real fastball, and that’s going to help us next week when we see another team with a fastball.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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