Preview | ‘Preseason is over’: Panthers to open conference play against Georgia Tech

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Fans wonder if Pitt’s defense will live up to their expectations at Saturday’s Pitt vs. GT game. Head coach Pat Narduzzi says defense isn’t just about “schemes” — it’s about “attitudes.”

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt football wrapped up its non-conference schedule with a win over UNH last week and as head coach Pat Narduzzi put it, “[the] preseason is over.”

The Panthers (3-1, 0-0 ACC) will travel to Atlanta, Georgia, for an ACC tilt with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2-2, 1-1 ACC) this Saturday. Pitt boasts the No. 1 offense in the ACC through four weeks, scoring an average of 52.5 points per game. But the offense has yet to play an ACC opponent and it’ll be interesting to see if this success translates to conference play.

Georgia Tech has the No. 8 defense in the conference but did hold the ACC juggernaut Clemson Tigers to just 14 points a few weeks back.

An offense that’s proven to show some firepower and a defense that’s shown flashes of greatness should provide fans with an exciting matchup this weekend. Here’s what to watch for in the clash between the two ACC hopefuls.

Will Mark Whipple open up the playbook a little bit more?

Offensive play-caller Mark Whipple has kept his cards pretty close to his chest through non-conference play, most likely to keep his best plays until the team needed it most. Through four games, the team has run pretty basic offensive plays and it’s been good enough to hang more than 40 points in each of the first four games.

Screen passes, attacking the middle of the field with deep posts and inside zone runs have defined the Panther offense thus far. But now that ACC play is here and each game is crucial in Pitt’s quest for a conference title, Whipple may dig a little bit deeper into his bag of tricks if the offense is struggling.

Should Whipple and the offense stumble out of the gate, expect some new plays from the Panthers because Pitt can’t afford to lose any games from here on out.

Who will get the bulk of the carries this weekend?

The running game has been bleak this year. Narduzzi has tried multiple combinations of different running backs with little success. Junior running back Vincent Davis and sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda haven’t lived up to the hype from training camp, leaving fans scratching their heads and looking for answers.

First-year Rodney Hammond stepped in last weekend and put up 100 yards of rushing and three touchdowns. His style of run is different from Abanikanda and Davis — he’s not the most elusive running back, but when a defender meets him in the open field, Hammond is looking to put his opponent’s backside into the turf. This certainly caught Narduzzi’s eye.

He’s strong, physical, runs low to the ground, spins and twists and just fights for those yards,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a tough runner, and it does give him an opportunity to go play more. You’ve got to make sure he’s good in the protections and all that stuff, but he did a nice job.”

It’s tough to imagine Narduzzi shifts the bulk of the carries Hammond’s way due to the opponent that his stellar performance came against. But if Abanikanda and Davis can’t put it together in the coming weeks, Hammond could be the next guy up. 

Will the Pitt defense start playing like fans expected them to?

The Panthers’ offensive firepower thus far has been enjoyable through four weeks. But the defense, against their two tougher opponents, actually played quite poorly. Against Tennessee and Western Michigan, the Panthers gave up a combined 78 points and it could have been more had Tennessee taken advantage of more mistakes.

Against UMass and UNH, the defense looked stout and how many expected them to play this year. The defensive front has been strong but has still had its fair share of lapses, including a 70-yard run to set up UNH’s only score.

But the glaring weakness has been the secondary’s play.

Opposing wide receivers are consistently finding themselves with yards of separation after blowing by the Pitt defensive backs. Pitt likes to jam up the receivers at the line of scrimmage, to give their linemen a chance to disrupt the pocket before the receivers have a chance to run their route.

This strategy comes with drawbacks. If the line isn’t able to collapse the pocket quick enough, receivers can blow by the defensive backs — something that happened often against Tennessee. Georgia Tech’s offense and their quarterback, first-year Jeff Sims, are good enough to take advantage of these coverage lapses.

If they do, Narduzzi will have to adjust. But to Narduzzi, defense isn’t always about schemes — it’s about an attitude.

“You can go out there and it’s not a matter of where you have your guys placed and what you look like structure-wise,” Narduzzi said. “It’s about how you play. Started off in an attack mode [against UNH], and I just like the aggressiveness of our guys and just taking it over, as opposed to waiting, playing on your heels.”

Pat Narduzzi vs. Geoff Collins

The Panthers and Georgia Tech most recently met at the conclusion of last season and one of the biggest storylines came after the final whistle. The Panthers won the game with a late-game touchdown and Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins took his frustration out on Narduzzi.

When the two met at midfield after the game for the customary post-game head coach handshake, Collins was very short with Narduzzi and ripped his hand away quickly. This sparked a response from Narduzzi, yelling back at Collins before making his way to the locker room.

But fans hoping to see a rumble at midfield this week are out of luck, according to Narduzzi.

“We’re good,” Narduzzi said. “You get upset after games … But we talked at Media Day face-to-face and he apologized, and it’s over … We’ll have a nice pregame talk. There will be nothing to that. He’s a classy guy and I appreciate him apologizing. I know how tempers go. I didn’t take it personal.”

Prediction: Pitt wins a nailbiter (31-28)

This is a game the Panthers need to win, not just for this season, but for the program going forward. Redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett will need to keep his offensive tear going to pick up the slack for the running game and he’ll have his work cut out for him.

Pitt will also need to take care of the football. Georgia Tech has been prolific in forcing turnovers and taking care of the ball this year — if Pitt gives the ball away, don’t expect the Yellow Jackets to give it back.

But the defense should be able to win the battle up front and put the offense in a good position to win the game. This game will come down to the secondary holding up long enough to give their defensive line a chance to put Yates under pressure.

If the Panthers can do these three things, they should win the ballgame.

The game will kickoff in Atlanta at noon on Saturday, airing on ACC Network.

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