Panthers set to kick off 2016 football season Saturday


Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi gets the Panthers ready for their first ACC game of the season against the Tar Heels. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein / Sports Editor

The Pitt football team will face a grueling three-week stretch against a dangerous trio of opponents in Penn State, No. 21 Oklahoma State and No. 22 North Carolina beginning Sept. 10.

But even though tougher teams loom, head coach Pat Narduzzi reminded Pitt fans this week that winning Saturday’s season opener against Football Championship Subdivision — formerly I-AA — opponent Villanova will be no easy task.

“We’ve got a very accomplished football team in Villanova coming into Heinz Field this weekend,” Narduzzi said, stressing earlier this week that focusing on the Penn State game too soon would be a mistake. “They not only have an accomplished football team, but a decorated head coach in Andy Talley as well.”

Pitt’s season begins at Heinz Field at 1:30 p.m. as the Panthers take on the Wildcats. Student tickets are already sold out for the season.

Four years ago, the Pitt football team got off to one of its worst starts in program history, dropping a 31-17 stunner at home against FCS opponent Youngstown State. Last year, the team narrowly avoided a repeat performance, escaping Heinz Field with a 45-37 victory against the Penguins.

This year, another FCS school is coming to Pittsburgh to try to spoil the Panthers’ season opener.

Fans will get to see one of Pitt’s most talented teams in years take the field, including junior running back James Conner –– making his triumphant return after recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a torn MCL.

One player on Pitt’s team who won’t be underestimating Villanova is senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos.

“My high school [The Haverford School] is a mile down from Villanova … so I know how good they [have been] the last few years,” Galambos said. “Any time you play a team you don’t want to overlook anyone.”

Pitt senior wide receiver Dontez Ford is tasked with replacing Tyler Boyd and leading an inexperienced group of wide receivers this season. He thinks that the scout defense did a great job preparing the Panthers –– and their younger wide receivers –– for their first game.

“We try to simulate [the speed of the game] as much as we can in practice. I think we got a lot of good looks from our defense,” Ford said. “I don’t think it will be too much of a struggle for [the first-year receivers] to go out there and get used to the speed of a real game.”

The two main players for Galambos and the Panthers’ defense to contain are dual-threat quarterback Zach Bednarczyk and 5-foot-7, 155-pound tailback Jarrett McClenton.

“[McClenton] is a utility guy –– does a little bit of everything. Not the biggest guy, but he can fly,” Narduzzi said.

If Pitt can bottle up Villanova’s running attack, defensive ends Ejuan Price and Dewayne Hendrix can be set free to swarm Bednarczyk in obvious passing situations. Narduzzi said the team’s goal is to keep the Wildcats under 100 yards rushing.

On defense, the Wildcats are led by senior defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, one of five senior defensive starters for Villanova.

“[Kpassagnon]’s a good looking player. He is one of those guys that probably has a chance to play in the league,” Narduzzi said. “Also, outside linebacker Austin Calitro is very physical. He probably will lead their team in tackles. Those are two guys to keep an eye on.”

Narduzzi expanded briefly Thursday on how to attack a team with two premium edge rushers on defense.

“The pass rush is one thing, but the first thing we’ve got to do is run the ball,” Narduzzi said. “So, there’s nothing better to do against a pass rush than to run it at them.”

Talley –– in his 32nd and final season as head coach at Villanova –– is a two-time FCS coach of the year. He’s led the Wildcats to 11 playoff appearances and the 2009 FCS National Championship, where Villanova defeated Montana, 23-21.

But the Wildcats aren’t only a perennial FCS powerhouse –– they have proven to be a legitimate test for Football Bowl Subdivision — formerly Division I-A — teams as well, narrowly losing their past three contests against FBS foes.

“They’ve taken the last three [FCS] teams to the wire with UConn, Syracuse and BC,” Narduzzi said. “If [our players] can’t see that, then we’re going to have a problem on Saturday.”

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