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Pat Narduzzi’s first season brings about culture change for Pitt football

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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While scrolling through Twitter on Friday during Pitt football’s final game of the season, I came to a realization. Unfortunately, that realization wasn’t, “Maybe I should spend less time on Twitter.”

Instead, as the Pitt football team fell to an early deficit in an eventual loss to Miami, I saw quite a bit of tweets from disappointed fans. In the past, such disappointment has stemmed from the team finding an unconscionable way to lose a game or just overall displeasure with the state of the program. But this time was different. Fans were disappointed because they expected to win.

Usually, against a talented yet under-performing team like Miami, Pitt faithful couldn’t help but be pessimistic. And no matter how much the players would suggest that they thought they would win, there wasn’t conviction behind those words.

Eight wins and four losses later, that’s the main takeaway from this Panther season — that there’s a drastic culture change among players and fans.

How Pat Narduzzi, Pitt’s first-year head coach, has been able to get to this point has been a multifold process. He started with big talk — promises of championships and a hard-nosed football team. That’s all well and good if the results match the talk. Without results, big talk can make a coach look like a snake oil salesman.

Eight wins and a 6-2 record in the ACC was only good for second in the ACC Coastal, not quite a championship — the team’s preseason goal. Eight wins, though, is impressive considering the circumstances, with Narduzzi being Pitt’s fifth head coach since 2010. Numerous coaching changes generally yield subpar recruiting classes due to a lack of continuity.

Of the roster Narduzzi inherited, he lost his star running back, James Conner, to a torn MCL in the season opener. With Conner’s loss, Qadree Ollison needed to shoulder much of the load, filling in well with 1,048 yards on the season.

No one could fully replace Conner, who was a Heisman candidate going into the season, but Ollison helped contribute to what amounted to a usually effective running game.

Then there was the quarterback situation. With the incumbent, Chad Voytik, struggling, Narduzzi was bold, and opted to let him and graduate transfer Nathan Peterman split reps the first two games. Eventually, Peterman proved himself to be the superior option in a week three loss against Iowa, which he only further substantiated as the season progressed.

Elsewhere on offense, Boyd continued to do Tyler Boyd things. The star receiver cemented himself atop the Pitt record books while again showing to be one of the best receivers in the ACC. Up until the last few weeks, Boyd received little help from his fellow receivers, outside of Dontez Ford, which certainly limited the offense.

On the other end, Pitt’s defense didn’t quite play to the level Narduzzi expects, who regularly churned out top 10 defenses as defensive coordinator at Michigan State. Granted, having finished 26th in yards given up and 8th in sacks this season, that’s still a commendable showing.

The unit started out quickly, with unyielding pressure on the quarterback, stout run defense and hard hits. As the season progressed, teams made adjustments and Pitt was mostly ineffective in pressures and in stopping effective passing offenses.

Against talented teams like Notre Dame, North Carolina and Miami, it became clear that Pitt just didn’t have the athletes to compete with the best. Being mostly ineffective in its base defense, Pitt’s coaches often opted to call designed pressures which left the defense open for big plays when it didn’t get in the backfield.

With new coaches, fans will often caution to hold off judgment until that coach gets “his players.” More than anything for Narduzzi, “getting his players” just means getting more talent on his roster. Once he does, the extent of the culture change will reveal itself.

Still, one of the best compliments one can give this Pitt team is that it won the games it should’ve won — something the team didn’t do under former head coach Paul Chryst, who’s teams lost to underwhelming opponents like Youngstown State and Akron. Past Pitt teams might’ve loss to Youngstown State, Akron or Syracuse, but this team won the games when they were clearly superior. And outside Miami, Pitt won the toss-up games against teams like Louisville and Duke.

It was in those possible statement games where Pitt couldn’t come up victorious. Of course, there’s no shame in losing to Iowa, North Carolina and Notre Dame, who rank fourth, ninth and eighth, respectively. Pitt simply lost to better teams.

It’s easy to wonder how this team would’ve done with Conner, giving Pitt another huge difference maker besides Boyd. The final deficits in their losses weren’t huge, all single digits except a 12-point loss against Notre Dame. Within reason, Conner probably gives this team at least one or two more wins.

But it’s what this team was able to do without Conner that makes the coaching job Narduzzi did so impressive. Presumably, past Pitt teams might have folded under such circumstances, looking around for someone to step up. They certainly would’ve folded late in games, something this team was able to avoid with consistently strong second half play.

In interviews after the Miami game, there was legitimate and palpable disappointment among the players in their inability to secure a ninth win. They didn’t take any moral victories in their late comeback, because they expected to prevail.

Those expectations signal a culture change. That’s more meaningful than any win.

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Pat Narduzzi’s first season brings about culture change for Pitt football