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Prediction: Pitt football to get back on winning track vs. Marshall

Defensive+end+Ejuan+Price+%285%29+has+been+one+of+the+most+disruptive+pass-rushers+in+the+country+in+2016.+Jeff+Ahearn+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer
Defensive end Ejuan Price (5) has been one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the country in 2016. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Defensive end Ejuan Price (5) has been one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the country in 2016. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Defensive end Ejuan Price (5) has been one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the country in 2016. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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The unbridled joy the Pitt football team felt after its 42-39 victory over in-state rival Penn State on Sept. 10, evaporated quickly.

After excruciating back-to-back defeats on the road against Oklahoma State and North Carolina, the Panthers know they were just a play or two away from coming home with an undefeated record and a national ranking. They, of course, did not.

Pitt returns to Heinz Field Saturday at 7:30 p.m. to take on Marshall, a team that enters the game on its own two-game skid. The Thundering Herd (1-2) are coming off three consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories, so avoiding a third straight loss will be no easy task for the Panthers.

Here are three focus areas that will decide Saturday’s tilt:

Price is right

Pitt currently ranks No. 89 out of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision — formerly I-A — teams in total defense, allowing an average of 422 yards per game.

But don’t blame defensive end Ejuan Price.

Finally healthy after missing all of the 2012 and 2014 seasons and half of 2013 with various injuries, Price racked up 11.5 sacks in 13 games last year to lead the ACC with an average of 0.88 sacks per game.

This year, he’s been on another level.

The sixth-year senior leads the ACC and ranks second in the country with 5.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Against North Carolina last week, Price tackled UNC’s star receiver Ryan Switzer in the end zone for a safety on the Tar Heels’ first offensive play in the game.

“Getting a sack is probably my favorite thing to do, even better than a touchdown,” Price said on Wednesday. “But making a big tackle for loss like that to spark the game for my team with two points, that was a great feeling.”

After terrorizing opposing quarterbacks in each of the first four games, Pitt needs Price to keep up his ferocious pace against Marshall to get back in the win column.

Containing Chase

Marshall quarterback Chase Litton has been cleared to return to action after missing the Thundering Herd’s 59-28 loss against Louisville last Saturday.

In Marshall’s first two games of the season, the 6-foot-6, 211-pound sophomore threw for 722 yards and 10 touchdowns with only three interceptions. His 181.7 quarterback rating ranks seventh in the country.

“They’ve got a great quarterback in Chase Litton,” Narduzzi said at his weekly media teleconference on Wednesday. “We know we’re going to get the passing game, so we’re ready for it.”

The Panthers’ secondary has been shredded the past two weeks by tall, strong-armed quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky. Pitt will need a much better performance out of its defensive backs to avoid an upset against the Herd.

Narduzzi said on Wednesday he thinks the secondary’s play can be improved by making things a little more simple for the players.

“Really it’s coming down to fundamentals. That’s what it comes down to, and making sure that the kids don’t have too many checks back there to call as far as coverages go,” Narduzzi said.

Don’t let up

The Panthers have been plagued for three weeks in a row by an inability to pick up first downs in the fourth quarter with a chance to put the game away.

Against Penn State, Pitt got the ball with exactly five minutes left and a 42-39 lead, needing just a couple of first downs to run out the clock and win the game. Instead, the Panthers went three-and-out and punted the ball back to the Nittany Lions, only coming out on top after Ryan Lewis’ game-clinching interception in the end zone.

Against Oklahoma State one week later, Pitt faced third-and-4 at its own 48-yard line with 3:45 left in the game. Rather than try to pass for a first down, the Panthers called a halfback toss to James Conner, resulting in a five-yard loss and a punt. The Cowboys went on to score the game-winning touchdown on the next drive.

Last week, Pitt held a 36-23 lead in the fourth quarter against North Carolina and twice had a chance to seal the victory by picking up a few first downs. Both times, the team refused to let quarterback Nathan Peterman throw the ball downfield, and both times, the Panthers went three-and-out. UNC put together two touchdown drives to win, 37-36.

Pitt can’t afford to get complacent against Marshall. The Panthers will need to stay aggressive if they take the lead and keep adding to it to avoid suffering a third straight devastating defeat.

Prediction: Pitt 34, Marshall 13

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Prediction: Pitt football to get back on winning track vs. Marshall