Pat Narduzzi prepares defense for balanced UNC offensive attack


Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi knows his defense will have to be ready to stop both the run and the pass against UNC. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

Nobody expected the Pitt football team to have trouble dispatching Villanova in its season opener, which the Panthers won, 28-7.

But everybody knew the three-week stretch that followed –– against Penn State, Oklahoma State and North Carolina –– would make or break the season.

The Panthers wrap-up a demanding September slate Saturday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with a chance to return home with a 3-1 record.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi repeated what he’s said about every game so far this season, downplaying the tension and maintaining his intense focus on the game at hand.

“It’s basically ACC championship week. This is a big game,” Narduzzi said Thursday at his final press briefing before the game. “It’s not the end of the world [if we lose], but it’s a big game.”

For Narduzzi’s senior players, the game could be their first victory over the Tar Heels since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013.

After facing Oklahoma State’s pass-happy offense last week and giving up 540 yards through the air, Narduzzi knows his defense will have to prepare for UNC’s potent running game as well as the pass.

“It really is [one of the more balanced teams we’ve seen] … I think they’re a 50/50-type team,” Narduzzi said.

While much of the talk about Pitt’s defense centered on its struggles to defend the deep pass last week, the Panthers have also struggled to keep opposing running backs out of the end zone –– allowing four rushing touchdowns apiece to the past two starting backs they’ve faced.

But they’ve yet to allow a team to rush for more than 100 yards, which is where Narduzzi’s main focus remains. He said the team was worried more about rushing yards than rushing touchdowns.

North Carolina has a pair of talented receivers for Pitt to worry about in Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins, but the team also has a special talent in 6-foot, 220-pound junior running back Elijah Hood.

Narduzzi praised Hood, but stopped short of putting him on the same level as Penn State running back Saquon Barkley –– who scored five touchdowns against the Panthers Sept. 10.

“Barkley is probably the best tailback we’ve played this year, without a question,” Narduzzi said. “Hood is a different type of guy … not as quick-twitch I don’t think as Barkley, but he’s physical and he does have straight-line speed.”

Then again, Narduzzi hasn’t forgotten the 98 yards Hood ran for in UNC’s 26-19 win at Heinz Field last year, effectively costing Pitt a shot at the ACC championship.

“Hood rushed for more yards on us last year than Barkley did [this year], so maybe Hood’s the better player. I don’t know,” Narduzzi said.