Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor
After going down to the wire with ranked opponents in consecutive weeks, Pitt football (2-2, 0-1 ACC) gets a chance to catch its breath when the Panthers take on the Blue Hens of Delaware (3-1) at home this Saturday. In their final non-conference game this season, the Panthers need to take advantage of their Football Championship Subdivision opponent before getting into the true test of conference play.
Against No. 15 UCF last week, the Panthers looked very good to start the game before falling apart and then miraculously coming back to win in the last minute. If the Panthers want to be competitive this season in conference play, they need to play clean games from start to finish. With a lesser opponent like Delaware coming to Heinz Field, this is the perfect opportunity to build on last week’s monumental victory.
Offensively, Pitt will look to improve even further on its best offensive performance of the season so far against UCF. Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett settled into a groove running the read option, which in turn helped his two favorite targets — senior Maurice Ffrench and redshirt junior Taysir Mack — get open and make plays down the field.
Defensively, the Panthers are trying to bring back several playmakers from injuries. When healthy, Pitt’s defense dominated UCF in the first half of last week’s game, tallying two interceptions. But then two of Pitt’s top cornerbacks, juniors Jason Pinnock and Damari Mathis, went down with injuries. The Panthers blew a 21-point lead, and UCF went after the injured Pinnock. Mathis and Pinnock are set to play on Saturday, which bodes well for the defense.
Special teams is one area in particular that Pitt must improve upon from last week. Redshirt junior kicker Alex Kessman missed two field goals, and the Knights returned a punt for a touchdown. The Panthers have to be better against Delaware. Kessman was bailed out this time by his offense, but two field goals could be the difference in a close loss down the line.
Delaware may not be in the Football Bowl Subdivision but it’s no slouch for an FCS program, coming in at No. 19 in the coaches poll. The Blue Hens’ offense has been serviceable through four weeks, only struggling against the No. 1 FCS team North Dakota State. The team underwent a quarterback change at the beginning of the season, with junior Nolan Henderson taking over for redshirt senior Pat Kehoe. With how well Pitt’s defense has played, it’ll be tough for this offense to string together significant drives.
The Blue Hens have struggled defensively, allowing 36, 47 and 27 points over their last three games. If Delaware wants to have a chance in this game, the defense needs to step up and disrupt Pickett and the passing game. If they let Pickett get into a rhythm, it’ll be a very long game for them.
Though fans and outsiders might dismiss the Blue Hens as a random small-school opponent, head coach Pat Narduzzi made it clear to his players that the matchup is personal for him. Narduzzi’s Delaware connection goes back to 1979, when he served as a ball boy for his father’s Youngstown State team.
“Back in 1979 … the only team we lost to at [YSU] was Delaware,” Narduzzi said. “I talk to kids all the time, this game’s gotta be personal. It’s personal for me. I’ll never forget 1979. Never forget getting beat in Austintown Fitch Stadium or getting beat in the [Division II] National Championship game down in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Youngstown expected to win the championship. We didn’t get it done because of Delaware.”
Pitt: 49, Delaware: 7
When these two teams last played in 2014, it was a 62-0 rout in Pitt’s favor. That was five years ago, but the disparity between FBS and FCS still remains. The Blue Hens don’t outmatch the Panthers in any phase of the game. Their only shot is to catch Pitt off guard, coming in with potentially enlarged egos after knocking off one of the nation’s best teams. But Narduzzi isn’t the type of coach to sleepwalk into a game without properly motivating his team, so that’s unlikely to happen.
This game has all the makings of a breakout game for junior running back A.J. Davis, who should break the 100-yard mark as the offensive line dominates Delaware’s front seven. We could also see extended time from redshirt first-year backup quarterback Nick Patti, as this game will be a blowout from the start.
The Panthers will continue to wreak havoc on the defensive side of the ball, getting into Delaware’s backfield with ease throughout the contest. With Delaware’s quarterback situation in flux, it’s likely that the Blue Hens test out multiple players at that position in an effort to find answers. None will find success. Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman will add two more sacks to his total and take him up to 7.5 through five games.