Pass protection has been a problem for Pitt at times this season, most notably in consecutive games against Virginia and Virginia Tech.
In the Panthers’ 24-21 loss Saturday at Navy, the volume of sacks wasn’t the issue, it was the timing.
Quarterback Tom Savage only went down once, but it was a 7-yard loss on the first play of Pitt’s final drive. The Panthers had taken the ball at their 25 in a tie game with 3:52 left. Instead of driving for a winning score, they went three-and-out, and Navy responded with a winning drive.
Overall, Savage’s jersey has stayed clean more often than not the past two games, and he has started to cut down on other mistakes as well. The fifth-year senior has not thrown an interception since the Virginia game four weeks ago.
Saturday against Navy, Savage completed 20 of 27 passes for 203 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I think he’s developed in some ways,” quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger said. “I think there are some plays, as there are in any loss, where it’s so easy to look at it and just be frustrated, but there are some things you can take from it.”
Specifically, Bollinger pointed to some check-down throws Savage made in the first half. Running back Rachid Ibrahim had four catches against the Midshipmen, most of them on plays where he served as Savage’s safety valve.
One of the problems Savage admitted to on the weeks when he was facing constant pressure was taking too long to throw.
“I think he’s really worked to know when to get the ball out of his hand, to know when he has time to read it out and understand the situation in the game,” Bollinger said. “It’s so hard when every play is different, every situation is different. First-and-10 in the second series of the game is a lot different than third-and-6 at the end of the game.”
The third-and-6 Bollinger referred to came two plays after the sack on Pitt’s final drive. Savage dropped back and looked for passing options, but, when none came open, he ran for no gain, forcing Pitt to punt.
“It just wasn’t executed properly,” Savage said after the game. “We’ve got to go out and convert on those.
“I think we’ve just got to go out there and do what we’re taught. I think the coaches nail it all the time, all week, what we have to do. It’s our job to go out there and just do it. The plays are there, the calls are right, we’ve just got to go out and perform and just do it.”
Savage had a season-high six rushing attempts (not including sacks) for 22 yards against Navy. Bollinger credited his athleticism, but Savage isn’t a player known for his running ability.
He said it ultimately comes down to how quickly he’s able to go through his progressions and whether or not he’s facing pressure as he’s waiting for receivers to come open.
“There’s a lot of times when you’re in the pocket you can’t throw it away because you’ll take an intentional grounding,” Savage said. “And, when you’ve got guys going over the middle, the last thing you want to do is throw it high over the middle because you’ll get picked. It’s tough, you’ve just got to pick your spots and go for it.”
Progressions and deciding on when to run the ball are both part of the mental side of the game Savage has had to take on in his first year as a starter. He’s a fifth-year senior, but came to Pitt in decidedly unique circumstances. Through seven games, Bollinger admitted Savage’s play “hasn’t been perfect,” but that he has been encouraged by some signs each week.
“I don’t know exactly how I expected [his development to be],” Bollinger said. “I still think his ceiling is somewhere [higher]. I think he’s still climbing into the player that he can be.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.