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This is not a drill. The Panthers play a meaningful football game at Heinz Field this Saturday with a near-capacity crowd for the first time since 2019 and, according to head coach Pat Narduzzi, he and his guys are ready to go.
“Couldn’t be more excited,” Narduzzi said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had some normalcy and we are excited to play against somebody else instead of ourselves.”
The matchup isn’t necessarily a captivating one as the UMass Minutemen, a program that has failed to post a winning record since 2010, come into town as 38 point underdogs. The matchup marks the first ever meeting between the two teams.
Although the game may not be the flashy headliner matchup fans may have wanted to start the season, there’s no lack of storylines to watch for ahead of Saturday’s game.
UMass’ high number of transfers
UMass went 0-4 in a shortened season last year, but brought in several transfers, including starting quarterback redshirt sophomore Tyler Little. Little started his collegiate career in the PAC-12 with the Colorado Buffaloes but didn’t see much playing time, attempting just 13 passes over three seasons. But just because Little doesn’t have much tape on him, Narduzzi isn’t dismissing the matchup with the Minutemen as a free space on Pitt’s non-conference schedule.
“As far as UMass, good football team,” Narduzzi said. “I know you guys will look, go, oh, they only played four games last year, 0-4. They have 12 new transfers on the football team from all over the place … So it’s a totally different football team. It’s not like you’re going to see the same team we saw last year.”
Panther fans will get the first glimpse at the new look Minutemen this Saturday.
Mark Whipple’s revenge game
Pitt offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple served as UMass’ head coach from 1998-2003 and returned to be their head coach again from 2014-18. It was a tale of two tenures for Whipple and the Minutemen.
In his first year as head coach at UMass, the team won a program-best 12 games en route to claiming the 1998 NCAA Division I-AA national championship. Things didn’t go as well when Whipple made his return in 2014. The Minutemen relieved Whipple of his duties in 2018 after going 16-44 in his second tenure at the helm.
Now, the tables have turned.
Whipple has the chance to enact his revenge on the program that released him just three years ago. But Narduzzi doesn’t anticipate Whipple and UMass’ breakup will change the way he approaches the game.
“I think that’s [way in the past],” Narduzzi said. “Obviously we all know, in every profession, it’s natural, it’s human that you want to go do that. But you know, the emotions won’t get into the game.”
Panther fans will have to tune in to see if Narduzzi’s prediction is right or if Whipple will have his former employer begging for mercy.
Hallett and Battle’s continued competition at free safety
Narduzzi released his depth chart ahead of this week’s game and, as expected, there was no official starter in the free safety spot. Redshirt junior Marquis Williams and redshirt senior Damarri Mathis will handle the duties on the outside while redshirt sophomore Brandon Hill will handle the strong safety spot.
But Narduzzi hinted last week that he wouldn’t name either redshirt junior Erick Hallett or sophomore Rashad Battle the official starting free safety ahead of Saturday’s game, and would likely opt to rotate the two in and out of the game.
“Rashad is big and athletic and Rashad could be out starting at corner right now,” Narduzzi said. “So we are looking forward to seeing what Rashad does in gameplay where this is what we are going to do … We are looking forward to a great week out of him and playing both of those guys, keeping them fresh and finding out what both of them are going to do on the hash.”
It seems the seventh-year head coach has had a change of heart after he named a starter on Thursday. Narduzzi told reporters that Hallett would be the player trotting out with the first team. Although, he did indicate Battle will play plenty against UMass.
This is a competition that seems to be ongoing and one that Panther fans should keep an eye on — especially with intra-conference play starting in less than a month.
While redshirt senior punter Kirk Christodoulou will hold the snap for the first field goal on Saturday, he still doesn’t know whether he’ll be on the right or left side of the football.
Left-footed placekicker redshirt freshman Ben Sauls and right-footed placekicker redshirt sophomore Sam Scarton have been engaged in a summer-long battle for the starting kicker spot. Unlike with the free safety battle, Narduzzi was unwilling to let the media in on who was going to be kicking the field goals this week.
Pitt said farewell to one of its more reliable and experienced kickers, Alex Kessman, after last season. The lack of experience in the kicker spot is something that Narduzzi expects to impact how Whipple calls plays going forward.
“[Whipple is] a conservative guy and he knows he had Kessman and now he doesn’t have Kessman,” Narduzzi said. “But I can understand, points are points and being smart and all that. But we’ll be okay and I trust both those kickers that when we do line them up, we’re going to put it through the uprights.”
Even with the Panthers being heavy favorites heading into this one, this is no throwaway game for the two young kickers as they look to prove to Narduzzi they have the consistency to be the everyday kicker.
Prediction: Pitt wins in a blowout (59-7)
Once the final whistle blows, don’t be surprised if the vast majority of the Panthers’ starters are on the sidelines. UMass may have some new blood with the influx of transfers who were added via the portal this year, but the Panthers simply outclass the Minutemen in both talent and depth.
Expect the Panthers to jump ahead early and not to take their foot off of the gas, similarly to how they played against Austin Peay in their opener last season. It may not be a close game, but it will be a telling one for Narduzzi as to who will play going forward with more daunting opponents lying ahead.
“There will be a lot of things we’ll find out on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. that maybe we didn’t during camp,” Narduzzi said.
The Panthers kickoff at 4 p.m. at Heinz Field and the game will be televised on ACCN.