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November 23, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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If you dare, tackling Conner can be a matter of pride

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By now, you’ve seen the eight-second video of James Conner stiff-arming Duke freshman linebacker Koby Quansah and then using the same right hand to call cornerback Mark Gilbert over toward him, daring him to risk the same fate that befell his teammate.

Pitt defensive end Ejuan Price watched the play Saturday with amusement and a little disgust toward Gilbert, who didn’t take the bait and chose the more effective — and safer — method and tackled Conner low.
Price said it would have been different if he was in Gilbert’s place.
“Man, you have to have a little more pride than that,” Price said. “You’re not just going to tell me to `c’mon’ and not get none.
“Me and James had a couple good collisions (in practice), but just him being the type of person he is and me being the type of person I am, he knows I’m not backing down. I know he’s not backing down.
“It’s definitely hard (to tackle Conner). Don’t me wrong. (Conner’s) a big body. But I’m saying I have a lot of pride. He ain’t just scoring. You can’t do me like that.”
My conclusion: The pride and toughness shown by Conner and Price have played a big role in Pitt’s recent success.

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November 19, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt prediction blog, an hour before gametime

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I meant to post this prediction blog Friday, but the end of the week turned busy and hectic.
I spent a few moments chatting with Pitt target Lamont Wade of Clairton and Pitt verbal commit Paris Ford of Steel Valley, then entered Heinz Field as a fan Friday night for the Class 6A championship game between Central Catholic and Seneca Valley (home district).
One side note about Central Catholic, a 42-7 winner for its third championship in four years and sixth overall. That’s a great defense coach Terry Totten has constructed, with Notre Dame verbals Kurt Hinish and David Adams and Jamain Stephens, the son and namesake of a former Steelers first-round draft choice.
Back to Ford: He allowed himself to dream about a future Pitt secondary of himself, Wade and freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin (another Totten product).
Whether that happens depends on Wade, who told me he will announce his choice Dec. 17 from among UCLA, Pitt, Penn State, Tennessee and West Virginia. From what I hear from people in the know, the smart money is on either Pitt or Penn State. If Wade’s as good as advertised, Pitt could use the help in its secondary. He’s enrolling in college in January, by the way.
On to Saturday’s proceedings:
I hesitated writing my prediction blog until now because I was afraid to go with my first inclination: Pitt will win comfortably.
Duke quarterback Daniel Jones doesn’t typically throw long — he’s averaging 10.9 yards per completion — and that could be an advantage for Pitt, which allows 13.4 yards per completion and 2.1 aerial touchdowns per game.
Both teams are coming off big victories, but Duke is 2-4 in October and November. Pitt is 4-2.
I wonder if the 4-6 Blue Devils will lose interest on a cold day if Pitt takes an early lead and James Conner starts punishing defensive backs who might get in his way.
I also respect the leadership the Pitt senior class is showing. I don’t believe the seniors will allow the team to suffer a Clemson hangover.
Pitt 35, Duke 23.

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November 15, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Playing the what-if game, and a big thank-you for Blewitt’s Aunt Patty

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Nathan Peterman admitted Monday he wasn’t happy when he believed officials missed a possible roughing the quarterback penalty against Clemson during Pitt’s unsuccessful two-point conversion try Saturday night.
But he suggested it might have been for the best.
With Pitt trailing, 42-40, late in the game, Peterman was sandwiched by two Clemson’s defenders as his pass fell incomplete.
“They did a little extra certainly,” he said when asked what he said to the referee on his way off the field. “I think they got away with one.”
But what if officials called a penalty, Pitt made good on its do-over and tied the game at 42? Clemson would have gotten the ball back with 5:12 left in the game, needing to score rather than focus on holding onto its two-point lead.
Same scenario if Chris Blewitt hadn’t missed an extra-point kick after a Pitt touchdown in the second quarter. Pitt wouldn’t have needed the two-point try after its sixth and last touchdown — just another Blewitt chip shot to tie the score.
“Who knows?” Peterman said. “We tie it up and maybe their play-calling is a little different. They want to go down and be more aggressive and they kick a game-winning field goal. It’s all God’s plan, I think.”

Speaking of Blewitt, he had a difficult time getting off the field after his game-winning field goal. Fans wanted their picture taken with the game’s hero.
“It took a while for me to finally see my parents,” he said.
He barely had enough time to take off his uniform and reach the bus to the airport on time.
But he didn’t mind.
“To be able to share that moment with so many fans who came down there to support us was definitely special,” he said.
That included Blewitt’s Aunt Patty, who has traveled from her Athens, Ga., home for three Pitt road games — and he’s kicked the game-winning field goal each time.
“I told her, specifically, she had to come back for the Clemson game because she was good luck,” Blewitt said.
In the end, Blewitt did get to share a moment with his parents.
“Seeing my parents with that look on their faces. They were so happy,” he said. “It was a special moment.”

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November 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Keeping a proper perspective, closing a cultural gap and (oh, yeah) a prediction for Pitt’s first trip to Death Valley

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When Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to make reporters believe he didn’t know Tuesday was Election Day, I couldn’t resist bringing up the topic of over-the-top football focus with Pat Narduzzi.
Is it possible, I asked him, for coaches to lose track of the outside world while bunkered in their offices, watching video, designing a game plan, critiquing practice and meeting with each other and players?
“During the day you do (lose track),” he said, “but that’s kind of (why) you unwind at night. I read USA Today (with an app) and try to find out what’s happening.
“You need something just to kind of unwind and get away from what you’ve done in the last 18 hours. I DVR the news. That’s about all I see – not the sports news.”
Narduzzi said he excused his coaches at 2 p.m. on Election Day when the lines at the polls were shortest. “We tried to find a time where you can run in and get out real quick,” he said.
He encouraged his players to vote, but he said he didn’t hear any talk about the outcome.

Pitt’s defensive line could have a different look Saturday at Clemson because of a lower extremity (can we just call it a leg or foot?) injury to Tyrique Jarrett.
Freshman Amir Watts, who puts his pants on just like everyone else and isn’t afraid to say so, probably will get some additional playing time. Junior Jeremiah Taleni also has been told to be ready.
Taleni, a junior from Kaneohe, Hawaii, is making an impact after a slow start to his college career, partially tied to the wide cultural gap between his native Hawaii and Pittsburgh.
“I hadn’t been competing where they wanted me to be, but I eventually caught onto that,” he said. “Now I can line up and play against anyone.”
Taleni admitted his freshman season was “the toughest year ever in my life.”
“I had to take it day by day, stay strong in my faith and I’m still here.”
You could sense the pride in his voice.
Taleni was recruited to Pitt by former Pitt defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, also a native Hawaiian, who followed Paul Chryst to Wisconsin.
That wasn’t easy for Taleni, but he long ago adjusted to his present line coach, Tom Sims.
Besides the weather, what’s the biggest difference between Hawaii and Pittsburgh in Taleni’s mind?
“We talk a lot here,” he said. “People back home are real chill. Here, everyone’s on the move, everyone is talking. You have to try to keep up.
“When I do go home, they look at me (and say), `Why do you talk so much?’
“I guess you could call me a yinzer.”

Most of Pitt’s injured players are getting healthy (Mike Caprara, Avonte Maddox, Dontez Ford and Bam Bradley), but Narduzzi added Jarrett and redshirt freshman wide receiver Tre Tipton to the list this week.
The Tipton upper body injury is significant, but look for Ford to get a lot of looks from quarterback Nathan Peterman. Ford’s a tough-minded Sto-Rox grad, and he’s eager to salvage what’s left of his senior season.

I was thinking what an intriguing day it would be Saturday at Death Valley if Pitt wins the game, or at least keeps the score close into the fourth quarter. A Pitt victory would make an impact that is felt throughout the country.
The most entertaining game at Pitt in the post-Wannstedt era was Pitt’s triple overtime loss to No. 3 Notre Dame at South Bend in 2012. No one thought it was possible, but Pitt overachieved that day.
The difference: Clemson has a far more powerful offense than Notre Dame did. Keeping pace will be difficult against an athletic Clemson defense.
This is the same Pitt team that gave up 51 points to Miami only a week ago. It’s not hard to envision Clemson reaching the 40s.
Clemson 49, Pitt 24.

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November 9, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Conklin: Narduzzi believes in his defensive system

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Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said Tuesday in his first chat with reporters since the start of the season that he and Pat Narduzzi have had “long conversations” about Pitt’s style of defense.
With Pitt traveling to Clemson on Saturday, Conklin suggested a slight philosophical shift in Narduzzi’s insistence on putting cornerbacks in nothing but risky one-on-one situations.
Emphasis on the word slight.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Nick Saban or Dave Aranda (LSU defensive coordinator) or Pat Narduzzi (Conklin said he has worked with, studied and/or consulted with all three coaches and their staffs), the things that make these guys good is they believe in what they do. They believe in their system,” Conklin said.
“(Narduzzi) is not ever going to be a Tampa 2, cover 2 guy (where safeties offer cornerbacks continuous help). That’s not who he is.”
Conklin said Pitt’s defensive scheme for the Miami game called for safety help and there will be some Saturday, too.
But there will be limits, especially with the threat of Clemson running back Wayne Gallman.

“You’re not going to be able to cover up (the cornerbacks) all game,” he said. “Sometimes, they are going to have to step up and make a play.”
The key for Pitt’s success on defense, of course, is and always has been the need to find and develop athletic cornerbacks. Narduzzi’s defense won’t work without them. That’s an ongoing process that needs more time than the 23 months Narduzzi has been on the job.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on Central Catholic graduate Damar Hamlin, who has proven to the best of the freshman crop of cornerbacks. Circumstances (injuries and spotty play) have forced Hamlin into the lineup, something Pitt’s coaches did reluctantly.
“We would have loved not to have to play (Hamlin) and develop him a year, get him in the strength and conditioning program because that’s what we’re doing: We’re building for the future,” Conklin said.
Instead, Hamlin will be in the Pitt secondary Saturday trying to keep up with Clemson wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, who will enter next year’s NFL Draft as underclassmen, coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and Gallman also are going early.

The College Football Playoff committee released its second rankings Tuesday night, putting Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington first through fourth and into the semifinals at the moment, followed by Ohio State, Louisville, Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Auburn and Penn State.
The Top 10 in my AP ballot is identical, except I put Ohio State four and Washington five. One-loss Ohio State has the better resume in my mind, with victories against Oklahoma and Nebraska that total 80 points and a seven-point overtime decision against Wisconsin.
Undefeated Washington’s only victory against a ranked team occurred against Utah.

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November 4, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Delta Airlines and Brian O’Neill strike again

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SOMEWHERE OVER PENNSYLVANIA – This curious dateline comes to you courtesy of Delta Airlines.
For the second time this season, a malfunction on a Delta aircraft put my travel plans on hold.
Two months ago, I was stuck in the Oklahoma City airport for seven hours the day after Pitt’s game against Oklahoma State.
Friday, on the way to Miami Gardens, Fla., via Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta for Panthers/Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon, I was actually in the air for 30 minutes before a member of the flight crew spotted smoke in the cabin.
I saw none, due to the fact that I had my eyes focused on something much more interesting: The book I’m currently reading – a biography of Walter Cronkite.
(Great detail and fascinating anecdotes, by the way, from biographer Douglas Brinkley in his 819-page book. My favorite story: Cronkite was fired from a radio job in Kansas City in 1937 when he refused to believe an inaccurate report from the station manager’s wife who insisted three firemen had died in a fire. Cronkite wanted to get the story confirmed — imagine that! — before putting it on the air.
In fact, there was only a small fire and no fatalities, but the station manager fired Cronkite the next day, anyway.)
But I digress (hey, it’s my blog).
Someone asked me if I was scared when the pilot reported smoke (we later were told it was caused by an oil leak in the engine), but I can’t say that I was. The pilot was very calm and professional, and I even had the presence of mind to snap a picture of the fireman who walked down the aisle to do an inspection.

Our plane returned safely to the Pittsburgh International Airport where I called Delta and found another flight to Fort Lauderdale — through La Guardia in New York City. It is scheduled to hit Fort Lauderdale at 8 p.m., four hours late. I wrote this on the plane, with the snack cart at my elbow, and finished it with a bowl of clam chowder at a place called Bisoux in La Guardia.
That’s fine, I guess, since I asked for a meal vouchers to compensate for my trouble and received $30 worth from the gentleman behind the Delta counter. I’m getting pretty good at asking harried airline employees for favors.
A three-hour layover in NYC awaits. One blessing: The clam chowder was very good. And I got a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and Citi Field, home of the Mets. (Trib page designer Matt Rosenberg is jealous.)

Onto football matters:
The week prior to Pitt’s game against Miami, some idiot or idiots somewhere in cyber space (or his mother’s basement) posted on a message board that Pat Narduzzi and Purdue are dancing partners. Purdue is looking for a new head coach and reportedly will pay lots of money for him.
Of course, the Narduzzi connection was a joke with no factual basis, but tweeters lapped it up like kittens after spilled milk. One tweeter even hoped that Pitt would hire Les Miles to replace Narduzzi after he goes to Purdue. (No, I can’t make this stuff up.)
Anyway, I don’t get the entertainment value in writing such inaccurate drivel. Does the writer hope it will cause consternation among Pitt fans who don’t want to lose another coach? Most of them are smart enough to know that Narduzzi has no interest in going to Purdue. Hello! He coached in the Big Ten for eight years.
Of course, Narduzzi was asked about the topic at his weekly press briefing Thursday, and denied it. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
My complaint with people who like to play with the Internet as if it’s a toy is that some of us actually use it for professional reasons and research. It’s wrong, childish and irresponsible to post information that you know to be false.
Grow up! I have better things to do than chase down your silliness.

Finally, I get to the intended purpose for this blog:
Here’s a little story on how Pitt offensive right tackle Brian O’Neill almost missed the two-point conversion after his surprising touchdown run last week against Virginia Tech.
“Everyone was freaking out,” O’Neill said, referring to the aftermath of his second touchdown run of the season. “I went to run off the field just to get the celebration over with. Everyone is screaming at me and pointing, pointing, `We’re going for two.’ ”
O’Neill sprinted back onto the field where, luckily, there was a dispute on where Pitt wanted the ball to be placed.
“The refs had an official timeout and gave me a second to catch my breath and get ready to think about what I had to do on the next play and stop worrying about the last play.”
Lesson learned.
I joked with O’Neill – one of the team’s nicest guys, by the way – about what he might do for his next trick. How many offensive tackles can say they scored on two run plays in a span of 19 days? Don’t worry, coach. He didn’t reveal any secrets.

Delta Airlines willing, I’ll be at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday for Pitt’s game against the Hurricanes, live-tweeting and providing complete coverage with stories you can read on Triblive.com and in Sunday’s Trib.
Prediction: I have a feeling Narduzzi will get his defense riled up just enough to pressure Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, and Narduzzi will make the necessary adjustments in the secondary to avoid a repeat of the Virginia Tech debacle.
Pitt 35, Miami 31

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October 27, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Let’s take a long look at Beamer-less Virginia Tech

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It would have been easy — and absolutely wrong — for Virginia Tech to remember former coach and former Hokies player Frank Beamer’s 29 years on the Blacksburg, Va., sideline by putting up some statue on campus.
New coach Justin Fuente had the right idea. Each week, Fuente chooses a member of his special teams — Beamer’s specialty — to wear the coach’s former number (25). Thursday night, it will be wide receiver Divine Deablo, the first freshman to earn the honor.
“I think it’s important to pay respect to the wonderful accomplishments that coach Beamer had here at Virginia Tech,” Fuente said of the second-winningest coach in ACC history (behind Florida State’s Bobby Bowden). “While also letting our kids be involved with it, more than painting a 25 on the 25-yard line. Obviously, all our kids — basically almost all of them — came here to play for coach Beamer, so they’ve embraced this award. It’s gone over really well.”
Sophomore safety Terrell Edmunds was enthused just thinking about the possibility of wearing the jersey when I asked him — before Fuente gave it to Deablo — what it would be like to earn the honor.
“That would be amazing,” he said. “Each week, day in and day out, we are trying to fight to get No. 25. That’s the utmost honor you can have here.
“(Fuente) is trying to make sure we don’t forget about all the things that (Beamer) did for us.”
Beamer remains close to the program, and he has been to all but one home game. He missed the opener because he was in Georgia for the birth of his grandson and to see the North Carolina/Georgia game. Son Shane Beamer is a Bulldogs assistant.
Greg Stroman wore No. 25 in Virginia Tech’s 54-17 victory against East Carolina, and when he returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown, he wiped his hand across his chest to ensure everyone saw he was wearing the jersey.
“(The jersey) is what we are all about,” Edmunds said.

One more note from the East Carolina game:
Cam Phillips scored on a 55-yard catch, blocked a punt and recorded his first career sack against East Carolina.
What was the day like for him?
“Like Krispy Kreme doughnut when the hot sign is on,” he told the Daily Press of Newport News, Va.
Who can’t relate to that?

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week reading and writing about Virginia Tech, its tradition and its 4-1 record since losing to Tennessee, 45-24, in Week 2.
The Hokies have lost their past four games at Heinz Field, but that’s meaningless history. Virginia Tech’s long, highly athletic defensive players comprise a unit that will be difficult for Pitt to solve.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one of only three holdovers from Beamer’s staff, has built a reputation as one of the nation’s top assistants with a salary approaching $1 million. He has been coordinator since 1995 — he accompanied Beamer to Blacksburg from Murray State in 1987 — and his defenses have finished first or second in the Big East or ACC 12 times since 1999.
He said Pitt’s offensive line might be the best his group has faced this season.
And Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada has shown an impressive aptitude for finding holes in a defense.
Still, I wonder …
All hope for an ACC title game berth is gone with a loss, but I still like the school formerly known as VPI to beat Pitt, 31-27.

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October 14, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Victory at Virginia would mark sign of progress for Narduzzi’s first 20 games

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Teams gain little respect when they beat Virginia. Everybody does it.
Before Virginia won at Duke two weeks ago, the ‘Hoos (short for Wahoos; love the nickname) had lost 16 in a row on the road. Actually, they have lost everywhere with regularity. Virginia has one winning season (8-5 in 2011) in six years, which is the main reason Mike London is a former ‘Hoos coach. New coach Bronco Mendenhall is changing the culture, but it takes time. (Yeah, Pitt fans: I know you know.)

But if Pitt beats Virginia on Saturday at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, don’t shrug your shoulders and turn up your nose.
The victory would be Pitt’s third in a row, fifth this season and 13th among coach Pat Narduzzi’s first 20 games.
If you looking for signs of progress, that’s more victories in Narduzzi’s first 20 games than the past six Pitt head coaches recorded in the same span.
Here’s the list:
Paul Chryst — 10
Dave Wannstedt — 11
Walt Harris — 8
Johnny Majors II — 5
Paul Hackett — 8
Mike Gottfried — 11
Foge Fazio — 15
Jackie Sherrill — 15
Johnny Majors I –13

Pitt needs to win these winnable games to keep pace in the ACC Coastal. Stack four in a row, including Virginia Tech on a nationally televised ESPN game Oct. 27, and the college football world will pay attention when Pitt ventures into South Florida on Nov. 5 to play the Miami Hurricanes.
One crisis at a time, though.
Pitt 31, Virginia 22.
Quarterback Nathan Peterman is finding his groove, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada is making all the right calls. It will be interesting to see how the Pitt secondary does without cornerback Avonte Maddox (maybe for more than this game).
If Pitt hits 30 points, that would be six games in a row scoring that many or more. But no need to get excited — Chryst (five) and Narduzzi (one) did it, too, spanning the last weeks of 2014 and the 2015 opener. By the way, Pitt lost three of those games.
One final note: The ride through the Virginia hills from Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon was not as colorful as I expected. Still too early in the season for really good fall foliage, I guess.

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October 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Former rugby and soccer player, Blewitt finally found football more than just “fat guys laying on each other.”

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Pitt senior Chris Blewitt played rugby and soccer while growing up in Alexandria, Va. For a long time, football was just “a bunch of fat guys laying on each other.”
Finally in ninth grade, he followed some friends into football, kicked 18 field goals in his final two seasons at West Potomac High School and earned a Pitt scholarship from former Paul Chryst after attending a camp in June, 2012.
He’s been Pitt’s only kicker since 2013, setting school records for career field goals (52) and kicking points (315).
After missing his first three field-goal attempts this season, he’s made seven in a row, including four from at least 40 yards.
He said he feels in a groove thanks to what he calls “shutting off the brain.”
“Same thing, all day, every day,” he explained. “Just doing it and not thinking. You train so much, it’s second-nature.
“You think about things too much, you start second-guessing yourself and making mistakes.”
He has coach Pat Narduzzi’s full trust, although he raised the coach’s ire last week by punting one day after practice. Narduzzi thought he was risking his kicking motion.
Blewitt said he was just “messing around.”
“He just said, `Hey, tone it down.’
“I don’t think too many coaches fully specialized in coaching kicking and punting. They just say, `Don’t overdo or get your mind right.’ ”
Blewitt has family in Richmond, Va., and many of them are coming to the Virginia game Saturday in Charlottesville — his last chance to kick in his native state.
After he graduates this year, Blewitt said he plans to stick with football, but he remains a soccer fan who wonders why he can’t find the English Premier League on his cable.
“I don’t know what’s going on with our cable box,” he said. “A lot of channels don’t come in. What am I paying for?”

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October 8, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Sending opinions below the Mason-Dixon Line

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Here is my Pitt analysis — pre-Georgia Tech — for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Questions in bold from Georgia Tech beat writer Ken Segiura:

Tech coaches are quick to pay running back James Conner respect for returning to playing after being diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma last year, so I’ll do the same. It’s pretty remarkable. But I have to ask how he actually looks on the field. I saw where Pat Narduzzi is trying to limit his snaps. I guess it bears mention that he also tore his MCL last year.

James Conner remains Pitt’s starter and the best bet to lift the offense (the passing game is hit or miss). But coach Pat Narduzzi has mentioned as recently as two weeks ago that Conner got tired in the middle of the North Carolina game. Freshman Chawntez Moss has replaced him and actually was the better back against Marshall. Conner doesn’t look as decisive when picking his holes, but he retains the ability to bowl over defenders (and not just little cornerbacks who don’t know any better). He’s a force in the passing game for the first time in his career, which is something previous coaching staffs never emphasized with him. He is Pitt’s third-leading pass catcher (13/169/2), but his per-carry average (4.2) is 1.6 yards off his career mark coming into the season.

Pitt is touting defensive end Ejuan Price as an ACC defensive player of the year candidate. Is he that good? What’s his game?

Price is a sixth-year senior, who is almost 24-years-old. Injuries set him back early in his career, but he has become a savvy pass rusher. He has a strong bull rush, especially when he is confronted with a blocking back, and some quickness to him when a tight end or tackle gets in his way. Also impressive is that Price’s numbers did not fall off when the other bookend defensive end, Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix, was lost for the season with an injury. But he doesn’t see as many double teams as you might think, with 335-pound nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett also on the line. I’ve heard several interesting comparisons to NFL elite pass rushers, including Steelers Jason Gildon and James Harrison and the Ravens’ Elvis Dumervil. (He’s built like Harrison and Dumervil.)

What does Pitt do better than anything else?

Narduzzi defends the run to a fault, and it shows because Pitt leads the ACC in run defense. He brings his safeties close to the line of scrimmage a good bit of the time, resulting in cornerbacks getting beat one-on-one. The Oklahoma State game is a good example, although Narduzzi blamed the opening play of the game (a 91-yard touchdown pass) on communication problems. Sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead, who didn’t play against Marshall for “personal” reasons, set a Pitt freshman record for tackles last season (109). He’s a significant force against the run. Pitt is strong up the middle with Jarrett and converted end Shakir Soto at defensive tackle, and the linebackers are smart, if not especially athletic. But outside linebacker Mike Caprara has been hurt recently, and may not play. Middle linebacker Matt Galambos is a three-year starter, and his backup Quintin Wirginis is also very good.

Last couple minutes of the game: Do you think Narduzzi would rather need to get a score or get a stop?

A stop, for sure. His offense isn’t set up for comebacks, with Tyler Boyd in the NFL and the second-leading receiver from 2015 Dontez Ford out with a broken collarbone. Narduzzi wears his defensive genius like a badge of honor, and much of it is deserved because Pitt is very good against the run and we can’t ignore what he accomplished at Michigan State. But Navy embarrassed Pitt last year in the Military Bowl, rushing for 417 yards — an instructive stat, considering the triple option comes to town this week. The defense could have won the North Carolina game with a late stop, but failed. And it could have at least sent the Oklahoma State game into overtime, but failed.

Can any other game besides Pitt-Penn State fill Heinz Field (which it did earlier this season)?

Yes, but it is limited to Notre Dame and, possibly, West Virginia. But West Virginia hasn’t played at Heinz Field since 2010, and the series won’t be renewed until a four-game, home-and-home series starting in 2022. Pitt was 6-1 last year for the North Carolina game on a Thursday night, but the game drew only 43,049, about 20,000 under Heinz Field capacity. Pitt fans are passionate, but too many fell off the bandwagon over the past several years of mediocrity.

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