Prediction: Panthers’ improvements could inspire victory


Quarterback Ben DiNucci scrambles in the second half of the game against Oklahoma State University. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Visual Editor)

By Abbot Zuk | Staff Writer

The Pitt Panthers will face off against the Rice Owls for the first time since 1951 in Pitt’s final non-conference game of the 2017 season on Saturday.

Already four games into the season, the Panthers and the Owls are both struggling to find their groove. Each team is entering Saturday’s game with a 1-3 record, and to make matters worse, Pitt dropped its last three games — the team’s worst losing streak under head coach Pat Narduzzi’s reign.

Pitt’s most recent loss was to Georgia Tech — a game in which the Panthers surrendered 484 yards of total offense to the Yellow Jackets. Of those yards, 436 were a product of the Yellow Jacket’s rushing attack alone.

As usual, Narduzzi chose to turn his full attention to Rice rather than focus on the Georgia Tech game. Even though the Panthers haven’t played the Owls for 66 years, the last game ended with a 21-13 loss for Pitt.

This year, though, the Owls dropped their season-opener to Stanford, 62-7, their last two matchups to the University of Houston, 38-3, and to Florida International University, 13-7.

In the Owls’ three losses, they have been dominated by a combined score of 113-17. Rice surrendered more than 35 points in two separate games. The Owls’ lone victory this season was the 31-14 defeat of the University of Texas at El Paso.

One of the team’s major downfalls is its inability to defend the pass. This season, the Owls have allowed 895 total yards through the air. They also allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete an average of 70 percent of their passes in those games.

If the Panthers intend to get the win, they’ll need to exploit these weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Pitt, the team’s starting quarterback is once again its best-kept secret. After Saturday’s game, the only thing Panthers fans do know is that there is still a competition between redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci and redshirt senior Max Browne.

“You don’t want to go through the two-quarterback system,” Narduzzi said in his weekly press conference. “It’s kind of like we did my first year with Chad [Voytik] and Nathan [Peterman] until it kind of washed out. But we tried not to do that, but we’re still [at that] same point right now — ‘Who’s that guy going to be?’ — and that’s just kind of the situation we’re in right now, unfortunately.”

Regardless of who starts in Saturday’s game, the Panthers could find success with either of their quarterbacks.

DiNucci proved Saturday he is capable of leading the offense on elongated scoring drives and extending plays with his running ability. And when Browne entered the game, he was confident in the pocket and delivered 10 completions on 15 attempts for 88-yards.

The Owls are also facing their own quarterback controversy. Quarterback Sam Glaesmann injured his shoulder in the team’s game against Houston Sept 16.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jackson Tyner —  Glaesmann’s replacement —  only entered the games against Stanford and Houston when Rice was down by more than 30 points and had yet to score a touchdown. He played all four quarters in the team’s 13-7 loss to Florida International University. Tyner completed 50 percent of his 48 attempts and threw for one interception and no touchdowns.

The Owls’ biggest threat to the Panthers stems from junior running back Samuel Stewart. He leads the team with 44 carries, 191 rushing yards and 10 receptions. Pitt’s defense could find themselves chasing Stewart all around the field Saturday, but if the Panthers can pull out a strong performance from their young team, they stand to secure a win.

Prediction: Look for either DiNucci or Browne —  or both —  to have monster games Saturday. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, Pitt will be able to amass a large enough lead to allow the other quarterback an opportunity to see the field when the game is far out of Rice’s reach.

Expect to see improvement throughout the Panthers’ defense compared to their performance last week. While Pitt may be able to force multiple turnovers, if the Owls do finally crack the end zone against Pitt’s defense, it will be a fruitless score.

Pitt 31, Rice 9.