Pitt Attaches Old-School Signature to Narduzzi’s Championship Prediction

Thanks to wide receivers recognized for their blocking ability and an offensive line endearingly referred to as “knuckleheads“ –– the Panthers are one win away from making their head coach's bold pre-season prediction a reality.

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It’s not what Pitt’s on the brink of accomplishing that’s so remarkable as much as it is how the Panthers have managed to come this far.

“The next time we’ll see you is in Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game, because we’re going,” head coach Pat Narduzzi had blustered publicly at a preseason function.

A win Saturday at Wake Forest, or a loss by Virginia at Georgia Tech punches Pitt’s ticket to the conference title game on Dec. 1.

The Panthers were far from a favorite to make Narduzzi’s play-for-the-championship banter a reality.

The ACC preseason media poll predicted a fifth-place finish in the seven-team Coastal Division.

The Panthers didn’t receive a single first-place vote.

But they nonetheless had confidence.

The bold talk back in August was a reflection of Pitt having 19 seniors at its disposal, a defense that possessed an understanding of the calls and the physical readiness to execute them, and a sophomore quarterback to rally around in Kenny Pickett.

Fast-forward to last Monday.

Narduzzi chose during his weekly media briefing to acknowledge some of the “unsung heroes” from the previous Saturday’s victory, a 52-22 thumping of Virginia Tech.

He included wide receiver Aaron Mathews, who hadn’t caught a pass.

“Graded out 92 percent, was just lights-out out there blocking people,” Narduzzi gushed. “It was like ‘wow.’”

Are wide receivers who can block held in such high regard anywhere else?

The offensive line was also recognized, and endearingly referenced as “knuckleheads” by their head coach.

“They say, ‘Coach, if we rush for 500 yards can we stay in the penthouse (on a road trip) so we can all stay in the same room together?’” Narduzzi reported. “They don’t care if it’s a bunk bed, they want to be together.”

The subject of Pitt’s offense being especially foreign to opponents and thus especially difficult for opponents to prepare for was likewise addressed.

“You line up with George Aston back there in the backfield, what position is that?” Narduzzi explained. “They have to have a lesson, football 101, to say ‘he’s a fullback.

“There’s all kind of new stuff they have to worry about.”

Pitt’s “new stuff” is exceptionally old school.

Old school enough that these guys probably wouldn’t mind if they just went ahead and did away with the face masks.

“Today’s world, everybody’s just throwing it all over the place,” Narduzzi observed. “I still believe it’s a matter of stopping the run and running the football.”

There wasn’t a preponderance of talk about that in the press briefing before the opener against Albany.

Maybe it was just assumed.

Pitt, after all, has run the ball before under Narduzzi.

James Conner, currently lighting up the AFC and the NFL for the Steelers, rushed for 1,092 yards, averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 16 rushing touchdowns in 2016, Narduzzi’s second season.

But the rushing numbers of late are more representative of a video game.

Pitt rushed for 492 yards against Virginia Tech, 254 the previous week against Virginia, and 484 the week before that against Duke.

Even in a 51-6, early-season meltdown in the rain against Penn State, the Panthers amassed 245 yards on the ground.

Perhaps we should have realized what this team was all about, what it was capable of, back in September.

The epiphany, if there was one, occurred on Oct. 6 against Syracuse.

A week after losing 45-14 at Central Florida and falling to 2-3, the Panthers trailed the Orangemen by three with 5:53 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Pitt responded with 11 straight runs –– showing little appreciation of the dwindling clock in the process –– advanced the ball 48 yards and eventually kicked a game-tying, 45-yard field goal.

The lack of urgency suggested the Panthers were just fine all along with methodically setting up a field goal attempt that would be far from automatic.

They didn’t put the ball in the air until they heaved a pass into the end zone from the Syracuse 27-yard line with 19 seconds left in regulation.

It wasn’t the way many if any other programs would have done it.

But it worked.

Five more runs in succession in overtime produced what ultimately became the game-winning touchdown.

“You just gotta be persistent,” Narduzzi insisted. “We have a good football team. It doesn’t always show every week. Just because you don’t win them all or lose them by the amount of points you want to lose by doesn’t make you a failure.

“You’re only a failure if you quit. Our guys are never gonna quit.”

In retrospect, they just needed to learn how to walk before they could run.

Apparently, Pitt knew how to get to Charlotte all along.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section