Pitt football announced its season opener and cornerback Damarri Mathis’ season-ending injury on Tuesday afternoon. Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer
Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi routinely emphasizes the importance of preparation. Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, he seemed at slight unease with one obstacle in his team’s preparation this fall — Pitt’s incomplete schedule.
The Mid-American Conference suspended all fall sports seasons earlier this month, leaving Pitt temporarily absent of a nonconference opponent as Miami (OH)’s season came to an abrupt halt. Narduzzi had mentioned behind-closed-doors meetings taking place to fill that slot before, and it appeared at the front of his mind throughout Tuesday’s media availability.
“I feel right now we’re gonna put up a good product, once we find out who we’re playing, which we still don’t know,” Narduzzi said. “We’re dancing around with a few folks right now, but I feel good about us finding somebody for the 12th.”
It didn’t take long for Narduzzi’s wish to come true. Pitt announced just a few hours after the press conference that it would host the Austin Peay Governors, an FCS school in Clarksville, Tennessee, at Heinz Field for a Sept. 12 season opener. Kickoff times and television coverage will be announced at a later date.
The Governors finished 11-4 in 2019, cruising to a 7-1 conference record. But the team hasn’t played an FBS opponent since a 45-0 beating at the hands of Georgia in 2018. Pitt reportedly will pay Austin Peay $500,000 for the matchup.
But Pitt also announced a huge setback Tuesday afternoon — a season-ending “non-football” injury to senior cornerback Damarri Mathis.
“We are certainly disappointed for Damarri,” Narduzzi said in the statement. “Fortunately, he still has a redshirt season available in addition to the eligibility relief that the NCAA will provide this year.”
The loss of Mathis, who started in 10 of Pitt’s 13 2019 contests, is a huge blow to a defense that’s already shorthanded after All-American defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman opted out of the season earlier this month. The 5-foot-11 cornerback logged 11 pass breakups and nabbed two interceptions last year.
In response, Pitt players will have to embrace Narduzzi’s next-man-up mentality he preached this offseason. First-year players further down the depth chart will likely receive opportunities they may not have expected when they arrived.
While Narduzzi aired some of his grievances with the NCAA last week, he directed his annoyances at the ACC Tuesday, saying its late decision to shake up all of the football schedules wasted the time Pitt spent preparing for teams like North Carolina and Virginia.
“When the ACC scrapped our entire schedule, and then made up their whole new one, it was kinda like, ‘Why are we doing that?’” Narduzzi said. “Every other conference said, ‘OK, here are your eight or nine ACC or Big Ten or Big 12 teams that you’re playing and add one or two, but we decided not to do that.”
On the field, Narduzzi said the unit has looked very “crisp” the last few days. He praised the team’s mental preparedness heading into this season, saying the time off this summer gave the players an enhanced opportunity to study schemes and strategies.
“We did some things in the offseason just in that quarantine time when they were home,” Narduzzi said. “I would say 90% of the kids I’ve talked to were like, ‘Coach, I’ve learned so much.’ You were able to just go into more details.”
Although senior quarterback Kenny Pickett looks primed to lead the Panthers again this fall, Narduzzi hyped a QB battle for the second spot on the depth chart, something he alluded to last week as well. He noted redshirt sophomore Nick Patti and redshirt first-years Davis Beville and Joey Yellen as potential candidates.
“The quarterbacks are hard to tell unless you get them in a scrimmage, but I’d say there’s a lot of competition at the quarterback position right now,” Narduzzi said. “You really gotta be ready for three of them, to be honest with you. You never know what’s going to happen with COVID and you never know when it’s gonna strike you.”