Pitt-Penn State matchup brings familiar foes back together

Although he isn’t allowing media access to the players, Pat Narduzzi spoke about the upcoming Pitt-Penn State at a teleconference Wednesday. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer.

Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi isn’t letting the media observe practice or speak to players this week, but he did have some things to say about the upcoming game against Penn State during his weekly teleconference Wednesday.

According to Narduzzi, about three-fourths of the Panthers’ roster knows somebody on Penn State’s team, which is what makes the matchup distinct.

Because of the emergence of the internet and social media, players from all around the country get to know each other –– and those who grow up in the same area, like many of Pitt and Penn State’s players, are able to keep in touch and stay connected.

“I think it’s special, whether you played in high school with somebody, played against somebody in high school,” Narduzzi said. “The world of Twitter and Snapchat now these days, these kids know who they’re playing against. They know them personally.”

Narduzzi mentioned that the Panthers took on Notre Dame last year, a program he considers one of Pitt’s rivals. But battling an in-state opponent for bragging rights takes on a different level of significance.

“I told them, you think [Notre Dame] was big-time, wait until Saturday,” Narduzzi said, adding that the schedule only gets more grueling after that. “And next Saturday we’ve got a big-time game [against Oklahoma State], and the week after that will be a big-time game [against North Carolina].”

Narduzzi –– who referred to Penn State’s Saquon Barkley as “maybe the best tailback in the country” during his press conference Monday –– continued to emphasize stopping the run as his defense’s top priority.

“[Barkley]’s a great football player that can make you miss. I’ve talked to a lot of Big Ten coaches about what he does,” Narduzzi said. “We’re well aware that we, number one, have to stop the run.”

Pitt has its own stable of capable running backs, led by redshirt junior James Conner, who rushed for 53 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns in the season opener against Villanova. Narduzzi gave his thoughts on Conner’s return from a torn MCL and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“You could really call it a miracle. Some people aren’t as fortunate as James to have the strength and the attitude that he had to come back,” Narduzzi said. “I didn’t gush during the game, but watching the ESPN highlight afterward put a tear in your eye.”

Narduzzi also spoke about balancing Conner’s playing time with that of last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year, Qadree Ollison, who ran for 30 yards on seven carries against Villanova.

“We’ve got to keep both guys fresh. There was a point in the second half where I was like, ‘We have to give James a break,’” Narduzzi said. “I think we’ve got a three-headed monster back there, and at times it could be a four- and five-headed monster.”

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