Despite Pitt facing another top 10 team in the Oklahoma State Cowboys this weekend, Pitt football Head Coach Pat Narduzzi focused much of Monday’s press conference on last week’s rivalry game against Penn State.
The Panthers lost the game with a lopsided score of 33-14, but they came close to making it competitive. The offense struggled all day in the red zone, committing one turnover and settling for field goals twice inside the Nittany Lions’ 20-yard line.
Narduzzi reflected on this in his opening comments, relaying an old football cliche to describe the team’s shortcomings:
“It’s a game of inches, and really our motto this year is to take it, and we didn’t go out and take it,” Narduzzi said. “That’s the thing that bothers you the most as a coach.”
The third-year coach fielded a question regarding Penn State Head Coach James Franklin’s controversial comments after the game. In Saturday night’s post-game press conference, Franklin said beating the Panthers was “just like beating Akron,” which many saw as demeaning toward Pitt.
Narduzzi opted not to say much, but did offer a small response to Franklin in the end.
“You’d have to ask him,” Narduzzi said. “They went low and we went high.”
Eventually, the conversation switched over to the Cowboys, who beat the Panthers last year 45-38 in what was Pitt’s first loss of the 2016 season. The pass defense struggled in the contest — a common theme throughout the year — giving up 540 yards through the air.
Quarterback Mason Rudolph decided to return for his senior season with the Cowboys, along with standout wide receiver James Washington. Even though the Panthers’ pass defense has shown improvement early on this season, it will be a tough task for the secondary to control the Cowboys.
“We have another [good team] coming in this week, and it doesn’t get any easier,” Narduzzi said. “They’re very, very talented, and our focus has to go to them.”
In order to win, the Panthers will have to start by slowing down the Oklahoma State offense. In addition to Rudolph and Washington, the Cowboys boast an impressive rushing attack led by sophomore Justice Hill. So far this season, Hill has averaged over six yards per carry with 159 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown.
“I think Justice Hill is going to be the fastest tailback we face this year,” Narduzzi said. “When you watch him, he’s fast.”
Last week Pitt faced Penn State junior running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley had quite a bit of success in the game, gaining 133 total yards to go along with two touchdowns. Pitt’s front seven will have to be better to stop Hill this week.
But none of this matters if the Panthers can’t find a way to put up more points on offense. In two weeks, Pitt’s offense has only managed to put up 42 points — 35 not counting the overtime touchdown against Youngstown State.
Over the past two weeks, the calls have consistently gotten louder for Narduzzi to bench redshirt senior quarterback Max Browne in favor of redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci. At Penn State, DiNucci came in partway through the second half and scored the Panthers’ only touchdown of the day on a 3-yard designed run.
Still, Narduzzi is deciding to stick with Browne, adding he was encouraged after he watched the film on Sunday.
“Obviously, he’s not perfect, but there wasn’t one guy who was on Saturday,” Narduzzi said. “I was pretty happy after watching the tape with him, more than I was maybe after the game. And I wasn’t disappointed with him after the game at all.”
Overall, no matter who’s starting at quarterback, the Panthers will enter this game as the clear underdogs.
“No, I don’t feel good when I look at James Washington and Mason Rudolph out there,” Narduzzi said. “But I do feel better about the matchup this year than I did a year ago.”