Preview: Panthers to breeze past NC State

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Sophomore Vincent Davis (22) continues to get the bulk of the carries at running back for Pitt, showing significant improvement from last year.

By Tyler Mathes, Staff Writer

Coming off a hard-fought 23-20 win against Louisville, the undefeated Pitt Panthers (3-0, 2-0 ACC) ride a wave of confidence into their noon matchup with the NC State Wolfpack (1-1, 1-1 ACC) Saturday at Heinz Field.

Pitt is off to its first 3-0 start since 2014, looking for the program’s first 4-0 start since 2000. The team receiving a No. 24 ranking in the latest AP Poll angered some Pitt fans, however, considering they dropped three spots after beating a ranked opponent. Redshirt junior tight end Grant Carrigan said the players don’t worry about the polls.

 “It’s nice and all,” Carrigan said. “We’ve been working hard, but we’re just worried about that next opponent. That’s just kind of what’s driving us right now, just kind of to keep going and be the best we can be.” 

The game will air on the ACC network, meaning the Panthers have yet to make an appearance on national television this season.

Louisville fought tooth and nail for four quarters last week, but couldn’t overcome Pitt’s defense, which amassed seven sacks and three interceptions in the victory.

Pitt put the Cardinals in a 13-point hole early on, but Louisville clawed its way back to a 17-13 lead. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi noticed many imperfections in Pitt’s performance last week.

“Our kids played hard,” Narduzzi said. “We obviously weren’t perfect, and there’s a lot of stuff we watch on Sunday night in really all phases that obviously we could fix, but defensively we were pretty strong. Had a busted coverage for a touchdown, really two busted coverages for touchdowns.”

Louisville entered averaging 501.5 total yards per game, 34.5 points per game and 25.5 first downs per game. They only scored 20 points on 223 total yards and 10 first downs against the Panthers, plenty of that coming on a 75-yard touchdown run that caught Pitt off guard.

 Sophomore Vincent Davis continues to get the bulk of the carries at running back for Pitt, showing significant improvement from last year. Davis played in 11 games, including the bowl game against Eastern Michigan last season, carrying the ball 61 times for 314 yards.

Davis has already received 42 carries for 156 yards through the first three games of this season. Narduzzi emphasized Davis’ maturity and confidence entering his sophomore year.

“Vince Davis has done a nice job. He’s just more mature than he was a year ago,” Narduzzi said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s a spin runner and not easy to take down. He’s making people miss.”

 Davis and the rest of the Pitt running back crew will face a struggling NC State defense allowing the most rushing yards (231.5) and rushing touchdowns (3.5) per game in the ACC entering Saturday’s matchup.

Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett is quietly off to a great start this season. The Panther defense continues to steal the show, but Pickett now has three games in a row of more than 200 yards through the air, and two games in a row with two passing scores. He also boasts the fourth most passing yards in the ACC (712) and fourth highest accurate pass rate (69%) in college football.

Defensive woes have emerged as the story of the young season for the Wolfpack. Virginia Tech and Wake Forest each scored at least five total touchdowns in NC State’s first two games of the year. 

Defense isn’t the only area in which the Wolfpack lacks stability. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary missed 20 days of preseason practice time due to COVID-19 contact-tracing quarantine, making redshirt junior quarterback Bailey Hockman the surprise starter in the first two games of the season. 

Both are listed as potential starters for Saturday’s matchup, and even NC State head coach Dave Doeren is unsure as to who will take the majority of snaps. 

“We need them both,” Doeren said, “They’re both going to get reps this week and we’ll see who is the most ready to lead our team.”

Containing sophomore running back Zonovan Knight, as well as junior running back Ricky Person Jr., will be the main challenge for Pitt’s defense. Narduzzi called them a “two-headed monster” in the backfield. 

“I think they’re both really good. Knight, he looks big and physical and fast. I think Knight has got more carries than Person does,” Narduzzi said. “The offensive line is really good up front.”

 That offensive line, although great for the running game so far, allowed six sacks last week to a Virginia Tech team down 23 players from COVID-19 issues. Pitt is the only team this season with 80+ grades in both pass-rush and coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, and will force the Wolfpack to figure out how to penetrate a defense allowing 56 yards per game through its first three games of the season.

Prediction:

Pitt’s suffocating pass-rush will be a problem for whichever quarterback the Wolfpack gets the majority of the snaps.

Knight and Person don’t need much volume to get going, but Virginia Tech and Wake Forest’s defenses don’t come close to the power of Pitt’s defense. The Panthers have already seen an All-ACC caliber running back in Louisville’s Javian Hawkins. Hawkins ran for 78 yards on 13 carries, with all but three of those yards coming from one play.

The Panther offense will jump out to an early lead like last week, but NC State’s offense won’t have enough to hang tough the way the Cardinals did. Pitt won’t have much trouble moving the ball against the Wolfpack defense.

Pitt: 28, NC State: 13

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