Narduzzi bringing defensive swagger to Pitt football

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Narduzzi bringing defensive swagger to Pitt football

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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All honeymoons end.

The moment newly hired Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi began to speak at his introductory press conference on Dec. 26, the signal caller’s enthusiasm and vigor enthralled Panther fans. It was a stark contrast to former head coach Paul Chryst, who has a more reserved demeanor.

The love for Pitt’s newest leader only grew as the offseason went on. He’s a local guy, from Youngstown, Ohio. He wears his emotions on his sleeves. He tweets. He’s just like us.

Pitt fans were optimistic. After three consecutive 6-6 seasons, many were tabbing eight wins as a minimum this season. Two sloppy victories over Youngstown State and Akron dulled the excitement but didn’t destroy it.

So when Narduzzi suffered his first career loss as head coach — a last-second loss to Iowa on a 57-yard field goal on Saturday — his honeymoon officially ended.

While questions immediately began to arise about play calling and decision making, in context, the loss was perhaps a more encouraging outcome than either of Narduzzi’s previous wins.

Plenty of obstacles have obstructed Narduzzi’s path. But this was Narduzzi’s first real test as a head coach. Facing a veteran in Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, at a packed Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, the matchup in a vacuum was already less than ideal.

In terms of a roster, Narduzzi was already dealt a bad hand, as he essentially had two months to both hold on to recruits who had committed to Pitt because of Chryst — defensive back Jordan Whitehead and running back Darrin Hall — while cobbling together the remainder of a recruiting class. Not all of the players currently on the roster were necessarily a fit for Narduzzi or his staff, and he won’t be able to remedy that for another year or two.

Losing star running back James Conner for the season to a torn MCL has also hampered Narduzzi. While Pitt sports a solid offensive line and impressive running back depth, but no matter what the external factors are, losing a Heisman Trophy candidate is a monumental downgrade.

While it may just be press conference coachspeak, Narduzzi hasn’t made any excuses. Instead, he has pieced together a team that on Saturday night, exhibited a showing of physicality and resiliency, Those traits haverarely shown up in the Pitt football landscape in the past few years.

The defense was flying Saturday. In his introductory press conference, Narduzzi said, “When you play Pitt, you’ll know you were in a brawl.” Iowa undoubtedly felt that in its win.

After the game, Ferentz said he knew Narduzzi’s defense would be physical.

“They are a pressure defense. They are very aggressive. They are very physical,” Ferentz said. “And if you’re going to beat these guys, [you have to take some shots from them].”

Every player, from sophomore defensive back Avonte Maddox to senior linebacker Nicholas Grigsby, bashed Hawkeye ballcarriers and wideouts in a controlled, textbook way, not an undisciplined or flag-eliciting fashion that that type of play can sometimes bring.

Nearly every pass by Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard was well defended, particularly when directed toward Maddox, who is flourishing under Narduzzi’s tutelage. Grigsby has shined in each contest this year, proving to be a three-down linebacker who can defend the run and pass.

The defense as a whole has made impressive strides each game. At times in week one against Youngstown State, the unit looked confused and gave up a handful of big plays. In week two, the Panthers held Akron to seven points, but you could attribute that to the grimy weather that turned InfoCision Stadium in Akron into an Amazonian swamp.

Against a good offense in a major conference, the defense thrived. It was the most impressive Pitt performance of the season — even more than Qadree Ollison’s 217 yards on the ground in week one — and it’s because it stemmed from players playing confidently in the right position. This is a direct result of coaching.

This was why Pitt hired Narduzzi. To transform the defense. Even without Conner, the offense has perhaps the best wide receiver in the nation in Tyler Boyd. The offensive line is stout — thanks in part to Chryst’s solid recruiting of the position. Whoever is playing quarterback — whether it’s Nathan Peterman or Chad Voytik — will have plenty of time to deliver the ball to No. 23 and let the Clairton, Pennsylvania, native work his magic.

Anyone can figure out how to make that work. Yet it takes a tactician to make the mixed bag of parts on defense function. Narduzzi — who as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State boasted top ten defenses each of the last four seasons — has simplified the defense, and his players are responding.

The honeymoon might be over, but the Narduzzi-Pitt marriage is on track to be a promising union.

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