Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor
With Pitt football restricting media availability in the week leading up to its decisive rivalry game at Penn State on Saturday, head coach Pat Narduzzi delivered what will likely be some of the only team comments until game day during his usual Monday morning press conference at the team’s facility inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
“I love the media. I love you guys. You guys know that. I’ll do anything for you. So it’s nothing against you, you guys know that,” Narduzzi said of the team’s decision to limit outside access during Penn State week, which has been consistent since the rivalry’s renewal in 2016.
“But I just want to keep it tight with our kids and let them focus on what they need to focus on,” he said.
Narduzzi spoke to the fact that Saturday will be the last game for the foreseeable future between the two in-state rivals. The four-game series began back in 2016, but scheduling conflicts between both schools led to negotiations running dry on any further matchups.
“You know, again, I’m going to emphasize to our kids, ‘You might be the last team to ever get to play this game.’” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know if it’ll be played. I’m either going to be in a coffin or retired probably, so I don’t know which one it’ll be.”
He spoke to the extensive preparation of his players and staff, noting that this isn’t the sort of game that can be planned for using just one or two games’ worth of film.
“We’ve got years of videotape, whether it’s against us or anybody else, that we’ve scoured through and got thick books that big of really what we’re looking at here,” Narduzzi said. “It’s not a one-game breakdown, it’s not a five-game breakdown. It’s a three-year study going on here for this game.”
Ever since Penn State head coach James Franklin made dismissive comments about Pitt after beating the Panthers in 2017, saying that Pitt treated the game like a Super Bowl while Penn State viewed it like beating Akron, fans have assumed that some bad blood likely exists between the two head coaches. But Narduzzi put this notion to rest, saying that he and Franklin have a positive relationship.
“James is a great guy. We go on the Nike trip every year, and I would call that a vacation, so we do vacation and socialize,” he said. “But when it’s game day, it’s game week.”
With a sellout crowd expected at 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium, Narduzzi touched upon an element that his team hasn’t yet had to deal with this season — the sheer volume of such an environment.
“Yeah, obviously when our offense is on the field, we’ll be in silent count, using different signals to get the ball snapped,” Narduzzi said. “We know that when our offense is on the field, we’ll have that issue to deal with. So that will be something that we’ll deal with [in practice] for sure.”
Pitt will also have to deal with Penn State’s dynamic defensive end duo of junior Yetur Gross-Matos and senior Shaka Toney. Gross-Matos was one of the most dominant defenders in the Big 10 last season, earning him preseason All-Conference honors entering 2019.
“It’s going to be a challenge for our backs to make sure we get chips on Toney because we know he’s blazing fast. And Matos is a big physical guy that’s got three sacks, and then they’re good inside, too,” Narduzzi said. “Their front seven is as good as you’re going to see in the country.”
As for Pitt’s offense, Narduzzi emphasized the importance of the run game while also alluding to the possibility that the Panthers have kept a few tricks up their sleeve specifically for Penn State.
“Our run game is still a work in progress, I think. I think there was a lot of improvement and we were able to at least work on it, too, which is a nice thing when you didn’t have to throw the ball 17 times in the first quarter,” he said. “I think that’s helped us be able to run the football this week, and again, we’ve got maybe some stuff that we haven’t run yet, either.”
The Panthers will look to tie their most recent Penn State series at two games each after winning in 2016, then losing in 2017 and 2018. Kickoff is set for noon on Saturday.