Narduzzi talks defending the RPO and preparing for ACC road test against Virginia Tech

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Joy Cao | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi spoke to the media on Monday to preview the Panthers upcoming matchup with Virginia Tech.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Fans’ feelings regarding Pitt football’s potential have gone through their fair share of highs and lows — from losing at home to Western Michigan as double-digit favorites to having a 9.2% chance to make the College Football Playoff.

The Panthers’ outlook seems to have reached a season high after their win over Georgia Tech. Head coach Pat Narduzzi took time to address the status of the team at his weekly press conference on Monday. 

The team started getting some buzz from the national media, and redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has thrust himself firmly into the Heisman conversation. But according to Narduzzi, this hasn’t changed how the quarterback is carrying himself. 

“You don’t see any change in who he is,” Narduzzi said. “That’s good. I think you handle it week by week and see how it affects him. I don’t expect to see any difference in how Kenny Pickett plays.” 

Lane Stadium in Blacksburg — which accommodates more than 65,000 fans — will have a raucous atmosphere that many on the team aren’t accustomed to, due to COVID-19 limiting crowds last season. When the team runs out of the tunnel, with boos raining down on them and the entire stadium electrified to the beat of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” it will be up to the team’s veterans to keep the stage from growing too big. Narduzzi will look to Pickett in particular to help reign his teammates in on the road.

“It’s comforting [to have a senior quarterback on the road] as a head coach, as an offense and defense, knowing that Kenny Pickett is going to lead the show out there,” Narduzzi said. “You know you can trust him. He’s going to do everything he can do to win a football game. Have a lot of faith. Talking to him yesterday. He has a great grasp of what they do and how they do it.”

Narduzzi also feels the team will respond to noise similarly to the way it did against Tennessee — as a non-factor.

“You see some teams on TV where they struggle with the noise, the crowd, jump off-sides on offense, all that stuff,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t do that down in Tennessee. Don’t expect to do it in Blacksburg this weekend.”

Pitt has hung more than 40 points in each of its first five contests thus far, and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has put more than just Pickett in the national spotlight. Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison is tied for the most receiving touchdowns in the nation with nine and the running back trio is starting to hit its stride in recent weeks.

Pickett has been in the limelight for nearly his entire career, but for the rest of the team, this increase in attention may be a foreign sensation. Narduzzi said he will monitor the situation in the coming weeks.

“Social media, they look at it,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve had two weeks to look at it. Look at me, all that stuff. You try to tell them to shut it off, turn it off. Do they? I don’t know. Hopefully they will.” 

The Panthers have struggled on special teams this year, specifically in punt and kick returns. Returners senior Melquise Stovall and sophomore Jaylon Barden have the Panthers sitting last in the ACC in average yards on punt returns and in the bottom two for yards on kick returns. 

Meanwhile the Virginia Tech Hokies are ranked among the top teams in the nation on special teams — something Narduzzi is well aware of.

“They’ve got one of the best special teams units in the ACC,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve got the number one ranked special teams unit when you take them all into consideration. We’re going to have to play our ‘A’ game. Special teams is going to be a critical role this weekend. We definitely have to get better there and impact the game on special teams.”

While the Panthers are still searching for an answer in the return game, it seems Narduzzi has found his steady placekicker going forward in redshirt sophomore Sam Scarton. After fellow placekicker redshirt first-year Ben Sauls missed two extra-point attempts against New Hampshire, Scarton has held a firm grip on the competition.

Scarton further cemented himself in the role after converting a 46-yard field goal on the road against Georgia Tech.

“I feel good with where [Scarton] is,” Narduzzi said. “Kicked a 46-yarder against Georgia Tech on the road. Sam has been playing well. He has a lot of confidence.”

The defense has not been the same lockdown unit fans have grown accustomed to over the past few years. But the defense has shown flashes of prowess and dominance, and this weekend will be their biggest test since Western Michigan’s quarterback redshirt sophomore Kaleb Eleby. 

Eleby picked the secondary apart with run-pass-option slant routes and, unfortunately for the Panthers, Virginia Tech and their junior quarterback Braxton Burmeister run an offense very similar to Western Michigan’s.

But according to Narduzzi, the defense has made adjustments in an attempt to neutralize the RPO style offense since the loss to Western Michigan and should be ready to go this weekend. 

“Obviously we know the one issue we have with RPOs,” Narduzzi said. “I think we’ve tightened down some of that stuff, changed things up that we are doing. [Virginia Tech] likes to run RPOs as well. We’ll see the same slant route that other people run.”

RPOs force defenses to commit to either the run or the pass, putting a lot of pressure on the linebackers. If Narduzzi dials up the heat and brings pressure, Burmeister will be able to have his receivers one-on-one with the Panther cornerbacks. But if Narduzzi decides to drop linebackers in coverage, it opens up the running lanes. 

“You either stay out of the box and let them run it down your throat or you step in the box, stop the run, let them throw it over your head,” Narduzzi said. “We have other little tweakings to our defense that we’ve got to take care of where we make sure we’re good in the run, still keep that backer out of the box. Those are all little things we’ve worked on the last three weeks and gotten a little bit better at.” 

Fans will get a glimpse at whether or not the return game improves and the defense can adapt to the RPO this Saturday. Pitt and Virginia Tech will kickoff at 3:30 p.m. and air on ESPN2.

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