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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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October 8, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Reliving a most remarkable Georgia Tech victory

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Georgia Tech arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday night on the 100-year anniversary of its most remarkable victory. Nothing like it will happen Saturday when Georgia Tech plays Pitt at Heinz Field. In fact, nothing like it will happen anywhere. Ever.
On Oct. 7, 1916, Georgia Tech defeated Cumberland (Tenn.) College, 222-0. A story on the NCAA’s website calls it “one of the most lopsided victories in sports history.” I contend the words “one of” are not necessary.
The game actually has an interesting backstory, according to the NCAA.
The Georgia Tech coach was revenge-seeking John Heisman, who today has a trophy named after him.
But why did Heisman want revenge?
More than a year earlier, Cumberland defeated the Georgia Tech baseball team, also coached by Heisman, 22-0. Heisman accused Cumberland of using professional players.
Cumberland never wanted to play the football game, not out of fear of losing, but for another more basic reason: Cumberland had suspended its program. Heisman was willing to let Cumberland out of the game contract, but wanted a $3,000 payment to do so.
Suffering from financial problems, Cumberland didn’t want to write such a large check (worth roughly $69,000 today). So, its student manager, George E. Allen, assembled a 14-man team of Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers.
(Fun fact: Allen later became a lawyer, and served as an advisor to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman. He counted President Dwight D. Eisenhower as one of his closet friends.)
Heisman chipped in $500 to help cover Cumberland’s travel expenses — they traveled by train to Atlanta — and also was nice enough to trim the third and fourth quarters from 15 to 12 minutes after Georgia Tech grabbed a 126-0 halftime lead.
Cumberland historian Frank Burns quoted Heisman’s halftime speech in a 1998 Georgia Tech alumni publication: “We’re ahead, but you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men.”
The Cumberland players’ cause was noble. After all, they were trying to prevent the financially strapped college from writing a check that might have cost some people their paychecks.
They just weren’t football players.
Georgia Tech scored 32 touchdowns in 32 possessions, amassed 978 yards of offense, forced 15 turnovers and held poor Cumberland to minus-28 yards and no first downs. Georgia Tech also didn’t record a first down — it always scored on the first, second or third play of each series. A year later, Georgia Tech won the national championship and the Rose Bowl.
The NCAA calls it worst defeat in the history of college football. Really?

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October 7, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Some Pitt, ACC odds and ends — and a prediction

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The NCAA Division I Council has submitted a proposal to the Board of Directors to introduce two letter of intent days — June (before a prospect’s senior year) and mid-December — but Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi won’t be pushing for its passage.
He prefers signing day remain the first Wednesday in February.
“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the student-athletes,” he said of the proposed change. “It benefits us more where we can lock ‘em up and worry about the next one.”
Narduzzi thinks the June date — eight months before the current signing day — may force some high school players into bad decisions.
“There are so many kids transferring,” he said. “I think the faster we make them make decisions the worse it’s going to get.”
I agree. High school players should have as much time as they need to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. Some will sign over the summer, anyway. But why allow schools to force them into an early decision? It’s like a pitcher signing a free agent contract before the end of the season. What if a player who had an average junior season signs in June with a lesser school, and then becomes a highly coveted prospect during his senior season?
Sorry, kid. You’ve already signed.
Let the process play out.

Interesting assessment by Narduzzi on his three days of practice in advance of the Georgia Tech game Saturday at Heinz Field:
“Really good on Tuesday, really sharp (Thursday). Wednesday was OK, not as sharp as I would like to be on Day 2.”

Senior kicker Chris Blewitt has missed three field goal attempts and one extra point, but Narduzzi doesn’t seem concerned.
“You don’t discuss much with those guys. You just let them go,” he said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Narduzzi did admit, “I’m not sure he was feeling as good as he wanted to feel early in the year.”
Blewitt has made four field goals in a row after missing his first three.
Thursday, Narduzzi caught Blewitt punting the ball across the field, something the coach doesn’t endorse as a way for kickers to pass the time.
“It’s like going out and playing baseball when you’re a golfer,” he said.

The ACC has decided to stick with eight conference games after there was serious discussion about going to nine.
“Shocked,” Narduzzi said of his reaction. “I thought it was going to go the nine way. I think it’s great. It gives (teams) an opportunity to (get) other people to play against.
“Go out to the Pac-12 or Big Ten or whomever. It gives you an opportunity to get outside the conference.”
That’s one way to look at it.
The other is this:
There is a wide gap between games against every opponent when you only schedule eight in the conference. For example, Florida State, a crossover opponent for Pitt from the ACC’s Atlantic Division, visited Heinz Field in 2013; a return trip by the Seminoles won’t happen before 2025.
If I was an ACC athletic director, I would find that scenario unacceptable.
Yet, Pitt has some interesting upcoming non-conference schedules:
— Pitt gets its rematch with Oklahoma State next year at Heinz Field the week after it travels to Penn State for the first time since 1999.
— Pitt will play Penn State at home and Notre Dame on the road in 2018.
— Tennessee and West Virginia are on the 2022 home schedule.
— In 2020, the year after the Penn State four-game series ends, Pitt plays Notre Dame at home and has an open date on the schedule. Just sayin’.

Narduzzi’s player of the week on offense? Freshman cornerback Therran Coleman, who ran Georgia Tech’s offense for the scout team this week.
“He did a nice job. He’s tough. He didn’t get a lot of work on defense this week because of that,” the coach said.

Prediction: Pitt 31, Georgia Tech 24. Pitt’s offense is rounding into shape, and the defense — if Narduzzi is to be believed — seems to have a good handle on the triple option.
I also can’t get over Georgia Tech only beating Boston College, 17-14, on a neutral field in Dublin, Ireland, two weeks before Virginia Tech beat BC, 49-0. Georgia Tech just isn’t that good.
Pitt needs to beat the mediocre teams before anyone takes it seriously.

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October 4, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Whitehead question remains unresolved

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Whitehead Watch 2016 continued Monday morning at Pitt’s first full practice of the week.
The player in question — reigning ACC rookie of the year and Pitt starting strong safety Jordan Whitehead – didn’t play Saturday night against Marshall, drawing several questions from reporters that coach Pat Narduzzi had no desire to answer.
Is Whitehead hurt? It didn’t look that way in the first 30 minutes of practice Tuesday as Whitehead, probably Pitt’s best defensive player and clearly its best run-stopping defensive back, went through walk-through drills, calisthenics and even a live field-goal block drill.
Was he disciplined for some unidentified off-the-field indiscretion? Narduzzi created that speculation by not offering a reason for Whitehead’s inactivity. If he is not being punished, the resulting speculation is unfair to Whitehead, who I have known for the past two years as a respectful and polite young man.
But if he is in some sort of trouble, there’s no harm in revealing the truth; Pitt coaches have announced many suspensions in the past. Narduzzi only has done it with Tyler Boyd and Rori Blair, but they were arrested, which eventually becomes public record. He had no choice in their cases.
I hope Whitehead is not being punished because it seems out of character. But we just don’t know the truth.
Narduzzi doesn’t like to talk about injuries, not wanting to tip off opposing teams, who might target the injured body part. (Former Pitt coach Todd Graham once told me that “absolutely” happens.)
I asked Narduzzi during his Monday’s news conference if whatever sidelined Whitehead had been resolved. When I told him I respected his position on the subject, he thanked me, but still didn’t answer the question. I thought it was worth an answer.
Narduzzi’s response only created more questions. “It’s never resolved,” he said. “We’re still working on it. Next (as in next question; the topic had run its course in his mind).”
As of Tuesday, the situation hangs over the Pitt fan base that is understandably concerned about what is happening to the team’s best defensive player.
The situation probably won’t be resolved for at least two more days. Narduzzi is required by the ACC to issue an injury report when he’s playing a conference team. He’ll do that Thursday afternoon. Even then, we won’t know for sure until Saturday when Pitt plays Georgia Tech at Heinz Field.
Speaking of Georgia Tech, Narduzzi needs Whitehead if he wants to effectively stop that triple option and give Pitt its best chance to win. Whitehead set a Pitt freshman record last year with 109 tackles and is averaging almost eight per game this season. But if he hasn’t earned the right to play in his coach’s eyes, that’s another story.
Narduzzi won’t be available for comment until Thursday when — at least one more time — he’ll be presented with questions he won’t answer.

(Narduzzi challenged his players by saying, “Coach (Andre) Powell (special teams) says you can’t block it.” For the record, Powell was right.)

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October 1, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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No time like the present for Pitt to restore its swag

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The time has come for Pitt to regain control of its season. All is not lost, but Pitt (2-2, 0-1) needs to start looking like a championship team — not one that talks about winning a championship.
Marshall is the opponent Saturday night at Heinz Field, and the Thundering Herd gave up 65 points to Akron. Need I say more? OK, I’ll add this: Akron (2-2) is no powerhouse and you’ll remember it managed to score only seven points against Pitt last season.
Marshall has been successful recently against teams at its Group of 5 level — even against a few from Power 5 conferences — but that won’t be a legitimate excuse if Pitt loses.
Pitt needs to end:
— Its failures in the passing game.
— Its inability to keep the ball in the fourth quarter with the game on the line (the defense just isn’t good enough to withstand the repeated pressure).
— Its tendency to give up big chunks of yardage through the air.
Yeah, Marshall quarterback Chase Litton is good (I know because Pat Narduzzi said so), but Litton shouldn’t be good enough to beat Pitt.
(Just an aside: Narduzzi also said Oklahoma State is a Top 20 team. I believed that before it almost lost to Pitt and then did lose to Baylor.)
Pitt has an opportunity to jump to the lead in the ACC Coastal Division in the next few weeks, playing Georgia Tech, Virginia and Virginia Tech after Marshall leaves town. Meanwhile, North Carolina plays three of its next four on the road at Florida State, Miami and Virginia.
It’s too early to look at the standings, but Pitt’s loss to North Carolina means the Tar Heels must lose twice for the Panthers to vault ahead of them. The first one could occur Saturday in Tallahassee.
The first step will be this: Pitt 38, Marshall 21. (That’s also a victory in Vegas.)

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September 29, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi opens up about freshman Damar Hamlin

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t like to talk about injuries or personnel choices, but he was more candid than usual when asked Thursday about freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin.
Hamlin had been injured and hasn’t played yet this season, but he continues to “progress nicely.” (Narduzzi’s words.)
“Which means, he’s not as hurt as he was,” the coach said.
Narduzzi wasn’t definitive on whether or not he will burn Hamlin’s redshirt at some point, but he doesn’t seem eager to get him in the lineup. (Which probably means he will play Saturday against Marshall.)
Here is Narduzzi’s response:
“He’s still a freshman. He’s a good player. He’s smart. He’s got great football intelligence.
“He’s athletic. He’s got the loosest hips I’ve seen. But that doesn’t mean he can go out and play and help us right now. I don’t want to put the pressure on a freshman to be the savior, either.
“There’s a lot of football to be played. I want to take care of Damar Hamllin.
“Would you like to redshirt him? Yes. Do you need him? We’ll see how we continue to make or not make plays on defense. It will be based on that.”

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September 27, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi opens up (a little) about injuries, clock management

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is usually guarded about injury information, but he slipped a bit Monday when he said freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin is “progressing nicely” from an unidentified injury (although Hamlin had hernia surgery in the off-season).
He also said senior linebacker Mike Caprara (lower body injury) is expected to return this week.
Hamlin and Caprara were participating in practice early Tuesday morning (during the 30-minute media viewing window).
Does that mean Hamlin could be an answer to Pitt’s serious pass defense problems? If Pitt is counting on a freshman to patch the holes in its secondary, this could turn into a bad season.
But Hamlin is talented, and comes from a Central Catholic program that has earned a lot of respect from Pitt’s coaching staff.
In one breath, Narduzzi talked Monday about “one or two” personnel changes; in another, he said coaches need to make sure players presently in the lineup are getting better.
If Hamlin is healthy, he should play. But I have to confess, reporters aren’t permitted to watch the important moments of practice, so speculating on how Hamlin would handle college wide receivers is a mere guessing game.
Based on potential and his play at a quality high school program (you know he’s been coached well), he might turn into the team’s best cornerback, possibly by the start of next season (if not by the end of this one).
And he doesn’t have to start the game Saturday at Heinz Field against Marshall. Insert him in the second quarter, for example, and see what happens.
But it’s not easy for a freshman, part of the reason Pitt has used only four. And defensive tackle Amir Watts, running back Chawntez Moss and wide receivers Aaron Mathews and Maurice Ffrench have played only in reserve roles.
Defensive line coach Tom Sims speaks about freshmen from personal experience. He played as a freshman at Western Michigan before transferring to Pitt.
“I started, but I didn’t play the first six games,” he said. “It can happen.”
But not easily, he said.
“Think about it. This is the biggest step you take. When you go from high school football to college football at a Power 5 level, that’s the biggest step you take.
“When you go from Power 5 football to the NFL, you just play good college players every week. But you go from playing against kids from gym class and 135-pound offensive centers to all of a sudden, you got a grown man with a wife who’s going to be a first-round draft pick; you line up across from him and Watts was at the prom two months ago.
“It’s a difference.”
Well said, coach.

I’ll give Narduzzi credit for something else he said Monday: He actually brought up possible mismanagement of the clock in the North Carolina game that no one had mentioned (at least not to me).
With 3:06 left in the first half, Pitt had the ball at its 27 with a 19-13 lead. It didn’t seem like the time to shut down the offense because Narduzzi knew he needed plenty of points to win the game. But he did wonder about it later.
Using nothing but running plays by five different players, Pitt moved to its 46 where Quadree Henderson lost a fumble with 43 seconds left. Using two timeouts and a 15-yard pass interference penalty against cornerback Avonte Maddox, North Carolina ended up kicking a field goal on the last play of the half.
“Maybe we should have just kneeled it down and went in (to the locker room),” Narduzzi said.
No, coach, there was too much time left. You never get back wasted minutes.

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September 23, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Watch, but don’t bet: Pitt 38, North Carolina 37

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Considering the high hopes Pitt carried into this season, it’s fair to wonder what two losses among the first four games would mean to the team’s mental outlook.
That might become a concern for Pitt fans sometime early Saturday evening.
The game against North Carolina on Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., is the second of the four toughest games on the schedule (Oklahoma State, Miami and Clemson are the others). Pitt nearly stole a victory at Oklahoma State last Saturday, but now it must turn around and encounter the defending ACC Coastal Division champion Tar Heels seven days later. Who made this schedule?
On paper, it looks like a difficult assignment for Pitt, and looks aren’t deceiving. North Carolina has three of the finest offensive players in the ACC:
— Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has yet to throw an interception in 91 attempts this season.
— Running back Elijah Hood, who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry (1.7 more than James Conner).
— Wide receiver/punt returner Ryan Switzer, a West Virginia native and a senior who has returned seven punts for touchdowns in his career. That’s an ACC record and one short of the NCAA standard held by Texas Tech’s Wes Welker (2000-2003) and Oklahoma’s Antonio Perkins (2001-2004).
But I’m leaning toward Pitt (or, at least, taking the seven points).
Pitt will contain Hood, and I like the way the pass rush, stirred by the inventive minds of coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, is starting to create havoc. Ejuan Price is fourth in the nation in sacks (an average of 1.5, with a total of 4.5).
Pitt needs to score a bunch, however, so the passing game must improve to make this prediction become a reality:
Pitt 38, North Carolina 37.

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September 21, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Powell: Nothing special about returns

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It’s true that Oklahoma State kicker Matt Ammendola recorded touchbacks on five of his seven kickoffs last week. But that doesn’t mean Pitt special teams coach Andre Powell will take his unit off the hook for what he considered a sub-par performance.
“It wasn’t anything (the opponent) did,” he said. “It was all us. We didn’t block them.”
Quadree Henderson, who leads the nation in return average (40.8 yards), gained only 31 on his two returns. That broke a personal streak of four consecutive games with a return longer than 80 yards.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t use fundamentals,” Powell said. “We had three penalties and had a number of mental errors. You shouldn’t ever have a mental error because we are so simple. We don’t try to trick people.”
Powell’s players get a challenge on the other side of the kickoffs Saturday at North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ T.J. Logan is second in the ACC behind Henderson with an average of 30.9 yards.
Henderson and Logan, both wide receivers, are third and fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards (192-188.3) behind running back Christian McCaffrey of Stanford (225) and Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State (222).

A couple of statistical nuggets drawn from the pages of Pitt’s weekly release:
— In the five seasons before coach Pat Narduzzi arrived, Pitt had only three defensive touchdowns. Narduzzi’s teams have four in the past eight games.
— Pitt is tied for second in the FBS for the number of graduates on the current roster (11). West Virginia, Georgia Southern, Illinois, Northwestern and Temple also have 11 behind leader Virginia (15). Penn State is 13th with eight.
Pitt’s graduates (all of them starters or contributors): Adam Bisnowaty, Bam Bradley, Mike Caprara, Dontez Ford, John Guy, Ryan Lewis, Reggie Mitchell, Scott Orndoff, Nathan Peterman, Ejuan Price and Manny Stocker.

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