Narduzzi discusses lions, tigers and Hokies — oh my


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Pitt finally defeated UNC after seven years of losing to the Tar Heels.

By Ben Bobeck, Senior Staff Writer

With Pitt football set to play its 11th game of the season this Saturday, head football coach Pat Narduzzi knows it’s the time of the year when players are nursing various degrees of soreness and injury. When asked at his weekly press conference how he keeps his team fresh, Narduzzi gave an unorthodox answer.

“You go to the zoo,” he said. “We were at the zoo yesterday. Went to go check out the animals — the giraffes and the lions and the tigers. The kids had a good time.”

Narduzzi might be hoping that the sight of lions — often considered one of nature’s notable apex predators — will motivate his team in its own quest to become king of the ACC Coastal. Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech (7-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) has serious title implications, with the winner gaining an inside track on the Coastal crown should current leader Virginia drop off.

Pitt is coming off a momentous win over North Carolina last Thursday, in which the Panthers blew a 14-point lead before edging out the Tar Heels 34-27 in overtime. Pitt snapped its lengthy UNC losing streak with the result, and Narduzzi praised his team’s mental approach for sticking the game out to the end.

“You’ve got to love it,” he said, “Like I said, it’s a game of inches and details, and our guys didn’t take care of some details. But when it counted, they made those plays, holding them to a field goal after they gave up two touchdowns. And it’s like our kids could have that mentality, like, ‘Here we go again,’ but they didn’t.”

Almost all of Pitt’s games have come down to the wire this season, no matter if the opponent was Delaware or Penn State. Fans might find this maddening, but Narduzzi said it has given his players confidence to succeed in such high-pressure situations.

“The kids play hard and they believe. You can have all these pretty blowout wins, but do you find out who you really are?” Narduzzi asked. “I think we know who they are. I think when it gets down to a fourth quarter in Blacksburg, we’ll know what we’re going to get.”

Last season’s matchup between these two teams wasn’t exactly an overtime thriller. The Panthers racked up an incredible 492 yards rushing en route to a dominating 52-22 win over the Hokies.

But Narduzzi knows last year’s matchup is virtually meaningless considering how many changes each team has undergone in the long year since.

“It’s a totally different football game,” Narduzzi said. “Last year doesn’t matter, two years ago doesn’t matter. It’s 2019, it’s this football team. It’s the talent and the personnel you have right now that you have to deal with and work with.”

Rather than relying on a dominant ground game with current Atlanta Falcon Qadree Ollison and fellow graduate Darrin Hall, the Panthers will instead turn to junior quarterback Kenny Pickett in the hopes that he can turn in another solid performance to follow up his 359-yard, three-touchdown showing last Thursday.

While Narduzzi didn’t go as far as to call it the best game of Pickett’s career, it certainly approached the top of the list, and he noted the improvement Pickett has shown this season.

“I think he just gets more and more comfortable,” he said. “Put that tape on and put the Virginia tape on at the beginning of the year, it’s a different dude.”

Pickett had some help last week in the form of a breakthrough performance from sophomore wideout Shocky Jacques-Louis, who caught four passes for a career-high 104 yards, including a long 74-yard catch-and-run for a score.

“Shocky is a good player. Shocky is fast. Shocky is one of the faster guys on our team,” Narduzzi said. “We’re happy where he is right now … I think he’s got a little confidence right now, too.”

Confident is also a good word to describe the state of Virginia Tech football right now. The Hokies had a rough start to the season, dropping two ACC games in the first four weeks of the year, including a 45-10 blowout loss to Duke at home. But head coach Justin Fuente turned his team around ever since, with the Hokies victorious in five straight coming into Saturday’s contest.

“They’ve turned it around since the Duke game where I think everybody in the country looked and said ‘Man, this is going to be an easy one,’” Narduzzi said. “Now we get to mid-November, late November and find we’re going to have a battle on our hands down in Blacksburg.”

This will also be the final matchup between Pitt and longtime Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who will retire following this season after 33 seasons on the sideline for the Hokies, with the last 23 spent as DC.

“He’s been there for so long. He knows the kids, he knows the area. I mean, he obviously understands the game of football,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a great X’s and O’s guy and he’s a great motivator, gets those guys going. That’s why Bud Foster is a legend and he’s only got a couple games left.”

Pitt received two targeting penalties in the win over UNC, with senior safety Damar Hamlin becoming the third Panther disqualified from a contest this season for an upheld targeting violation. Narduzzi noted the increase from past seasons and voiced concerns about the inconsistency of the rule.

“That’s two more than we’ve had in the four previous seasons. I’m not happy with it,” Narduzzi said. “I watched games on Saturday like you guys did, and I saw some things get turned over by the SEC and the Big Ten or whatever conference you’re watching, and I don’t — I’m going to have to go to school and find out what targeting is. But that’s as far as I’ll go.”