Narduzzi keeps focus on Youngstown ahead of PSU rematch

Pat Narduzzi addresses the media ahead of last year's season opener against Villanova. (Photo by Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer)

With Pitt football’s highly anticipated matchup against Penn State only 11 days away, some might look at this week’s game against the Youngstown State Penguins and dismiss it as an easy win for the Panthers.

Just don’t count head coach Pat Narduzzi among them.

At his weekly press conference Monday afternoon, Narduzzi received several questions about the rivalry game but didn’t give a complete answer to any of them. Instead, he remained focused solely on this week, saying the Penguins are a legitimate threat coming into Heinz Field.

“It’s a one-game season, and that’s all I’m focused on,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t care about anything else.”

This is not all that surprising for the coach, who said similar things before the 2016 opener prior to enforcing a media blackout during the week of the Penn State game.

Narduzzi — and some of his older players — know very well how tough Youngstown State can be. Two years ago, in Narduzzi’s first game, the Penguins gave the Panthers everything they could handle, but Pitt was able to escape with a 45-37 win.

Many players return from the 2015 Penguins team, including starting quarterback Hunter Wells. Wells had a solid game in the previous contest, completing 19 of 38 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown.

“Offensively, Hunter Wells runs the show,” Narduzzi said. “I think he can make a lot of throws and he’s very smart and gets them in the right plays.”

Given the experience in that game, Narduzzi hopes his players can keep their minds on this week and bring home their first win of the year.

“I want to see our guys come out with an attitude of ‘This is a big game,’ because you only get 12 opportunities,” Narduzzi said. “I want to see them come out and play like they can. I don’t want them holding anything back for next week or the week after that or for the ACC.”

Last year against Villanova, Narduzzi and former offensive coordinator Matt Canada kept their creative offense under wraps in order to surprise teams later on, opting to run a more simplistic version of their scheme.

The tactic paid off against the Nittany Lions. The Panthers surprised their rivals with an offense based on large shifts and jet sweeps. They jumped out to a 28-7 lead in the first half enough to carry them to victory despite a Penn State comeback attempt.

When asked, Narduzzi begrudgingly admitted his team would keep some of its playbook a secret, but made no mistake in saying they would use it if need be.

“We might be a little bit boring, I don’t know,” Narduzzi said. “Put it this way, there’s some things we’re going to hold, but we’re going out to win that football game, and that’s what it comes down to.”

Among other topics, the third-year coach touched on his suspensions of junior safety Jordan Whitehead, senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis and redshirt junior offensive lineman Alex Bookser, saying the backups have filled in better than he expected.

“I feel a lot better than I would have felt if I found out or made that decision this week,” Narduzzi said. “I’d be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, can we get time?’ We’ve had time to prepare, and we’ll be fine.”

Without those three starters, the Panthers will be very shorthanded, especially on defense, and will need these players to step up. Considering the inexperience of these players, Narduzzi lessened the expectations going into the week, hoping the group will gain confidence as the season progresses.

“We’re going to make our biggest improvement from game one to game two,” Narduzzi said. “That’s just natural … so that confidence, we’ll build that.”

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