Preview | Panthers look to move on from Miami, bounce back against Duke

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AP Photo/Matt Kelley

Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg (12) throws the ball during the first half of a game against Wake Forest University at Wake Forest’s Truist Field in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Saturday.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

In the last week, Pitt has gone from College Football Playoff hopefuls to on the fringe of the Top 25. But according to head coach Pat Narduzzi, his team isn’t discouraged and still have many of their goals ahead of them.

“Tough one to swallow, but we will bounce back,” Narduzzi said. “All our goals are still in front of us.”

Narduzzi and the coaching staff have had a goal to go “1-0” each week — this week it’s the Duke Blue Devils standing in their way of doing so. Duke (3-5, 0-4 ACC) may not have a daunting record, but like Miami, this one has the makings of being another frustrating game for Pitt fans if Pitt isn’t ready for what they have on offense.

Despite the loss last week, Pitt (6-2, 3-1 ACC) is still in sole possession of the Coastal Division. The Panthers control their own destiny in the ACC — win out the regular season and they’ll be playing in Charlotte on Dec. 4.

Here’s what the Panthers need to do to make sure they’re ready for the Blue Devils.

Pitt needs to establish the run-game early against Duke

On 55 attempts, redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for a program-record 519 yards and three touchdowns against Miami. But in the process, Pickett threw two backbreaking interceptions — more than he had in the rest of the season combined up until that point. And like redshirt senior linebacker John Petrishen said, turnovers are unavoidable.

“Kenny is a very accountable teammate and player,” Petrishen said. “This season he’s made very few mistakes … turnovers are going to happen, it’s inevitable. We can’t get upset when those things do happen. We expect greatness from Kenny and most of the time we do get that.”

Pitt ranks No. 5 in offensive yards per game with 529.2, but No. 75 nationally in rush yards per game. This wide gap exposes the Panthers’ offense as one that lacks balance.

Expecting a quarterback, even a fifth-year senior, to make no mistakes on 55 attempts isn’t realistic. Narduzzi said throwing the ball that much was a product of playing from behind in the game. But the more startling statistic from the game is that the running backs combined for a grand total of 13 carries.

Without the threat of a running game, defenses have no reason to bring linebackers up to load the box and surrender the middle of the field. It allows the defense to drop nearly everyone but their linemen into coverage, putting a lot of pressure on Pickett and the receivers to find soft spots in a blanketed zone.

Offensive play caller Mark Whipple has two very capable running backs in sophomore Israel Abanikanda and first-year Rodney Hammond. The offensive line has also proven that it can clear lanes for these guys to get moving. If Whipple can establish a run-game early, it’ll keep the defense guessing and open things up downfield for Pickett.

Pitt needs to re-evaluate their defensive schemes and strategies

Anyone who watched the first half of the Miami game knows that whatever the Panthers were doing on defense simply was not working. Miami gashed the Panthers in the first half, putting up 31 points, but scored just seven after the break.

Bubble screens destroyed the Panthers against the Hurricanes. Narduzzi said he thought it looked like his players didn’t know where to go when they ran this play, taking the front or back door to the runner. According to Narduzzi, the defense gave up 108 yards on bubble screens and he felt it was due to a lack of physicality.

 “We didn’t have a great plan as coaches to have a change-up to what we were doing because we weren’t denting it with our outside linebacker,” Narduzzi said. “They beat us up out there. We didn’t make plays. We didn’t get off the blocks. 108 yards, that’s a lot of yards in just a simple bubble.”

If Pitt’s linebackers aren’t physical or big enough to shed blocks and fight through to make tackles, Narduzzi will have to reevaluate how the team covers screens. Maybe dropping the outside linebackers who have size on their side in certain offensive looks is the solution, or playing with different personnel on the field.

Whatever it may be, Narduzzi will need to switch it up before the Panthers’ matchup with Duke.

Pitt needs to fix its tackling issues

When Pitt did execute in shedding blocks and meeting receivers after the catch, much of the time Miami’s receivers blew by the Panther defense. Pitt missed tackles left and right last week — at all positions. Petrishen said he and much of the rest of the team felt they underperformed in this aspect.

“For me, it wasn’t up to my standards,” Petrishen said. “I missed a couple of tackles I usually don’t miss. I think [the other linebackers] all felt the same way.”

Narduzzi joined Petrishen in expressing frustration at the missed tackles.

We missed some tackles,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t do a good job of tackling in space. We didn’t do a good job of making it clear for him of where to go.”

Tackling isn’t necessarily something that can be easily fixed in practice, though. Practices aren’t usually full contact, in an effort to keep players healthy throughout the season. But junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis is confident that the linebackers can figure out the issue going forward.

“We just missed tackles all over the place,” Dennis said. “We gotta fix that in practice and I know we will.”

Prediction | Pitt gets back on track — win 51-21

Duke boasts the No. 28 offense in the league and the Pitt defense didn’t do much to dispel any worries fans may have had last weekend. Miami’s run-game gashed the Panthers, and Duke brings a just as good, if not better, running back to the table. Senior running back Mataeo Durant is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has nine touchdowns on the season. He runs hard and fast, much like Miami’s first-year Jaylan Knighton. The run-game has certainly caught Narduzzi’s eye.

“The Durant kid, tailback, No. 21, I think he’s got 156 carries,” Narduzzi said. “He’s their workhorse. Don’t have two guys rotating in there. He is the guy. They’re going to ride him until he needs a blow and he taps out, someone else will come in. He does a nice job running the football, reading the zone play, being patient, finding holes. He’s a good tailback.”

Expect Durant to have a solid performance and rack up a couple touchdowns. But the explosiveness of the Panther offense will outpace the Blue Devils. If Pitt makes Duke play from behind, it’ll force the Blue Devils to move away from Durant and throw the ball more. Pitt needs to come out fast in order to avoid another let down.

The game will kickoff in Durham, North Carolina, at noon and air on ACC Network.

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