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October 23, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi hasn’t changed in 20 years

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When Pat Narduzzi was linebackers coach at Rhode Island in the 1990s, associate athletic director John Vanner always took the same phone call the Monday after a road game.
It was his counterpart at the school Rhode Island had just visited, asking Vanner to keep a lid on his noisy coaches. Especially Narduzzi, who was as energetic in his 20s as he is now at 49.
“The words were even clearer when the window was open,” Vanner said. “I said I would, but I knew darn well the same thing would happen next week.”
Vanner also had to keep an eye on his secondary coach Scott Shafer. One day, when Vanner entered the locker room for his early-morning workout, Shafer and another coach were sleeping on the hard benches. They had spent the night in their offices, preparing for the upcoming game.
Narduzzi wasn’t there, and Vanner knew the reason why.
“His young wife wouldn’t let him do that with a one-year-old at home,” he said.
Narduzzi and Shafer, good friends from two decades ago, get together Saturday for the first time as rivals when Narduzzi leads Pitt into Carrier Dome to face Shafer’s Orange.
Vanner will be conflicted in his rooting interests, although he may be partial to Shafer. “They kicked our butt (47-0) earlier this season,” he said.
Vanner, who has been at Rhode Island 38 years and once hired Sweet 16 basketball coach Tom Penders, said he is not surprised that Narduzzi and Shafer now lead their own programs.
“You could tell,” he said. “They did the extra things and were good listeners as well.”
Sounds like good life lessons for anyone to heed.

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October 21, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Do they sell blow horns at the Carrier Dome?

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The last of Pitt’s five road games during the first eight weeks of the season will be at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome on Saturday.
The place can get noisy, but it shouldn’t become a factor in the game. Not if preparation matters.
Pitt has played more games against Syracuse (36-31-3) than any other opponent other than Penn State and West Virginia, and three of the past five have been at the Carrier Dome. There were two in a row there in 2012-13 because of the transition from the Big East to the ACC. Pitt has won four of the past five as the visitor.
Pitt center Artie Rowell said coach Pat Narduzzi has cranked up the noise this week at practice. Pitt even moved indoors, although the weather has been favorable for open-air practices.
“We use our speakers, plus the Steelers’ speakers,” Rowell said. “What we practice in there will be louder than anything we’ll play in, unless they show up with 40,000 people with blow horns.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can attest to the noise at practice.
“I walk off of there with the worst headache in the world,” he said.
— By the end of the day Saturday, Pitt will be the only ACC team to have played five road games. Wake Forest has played four, but it is home Saturday against N.C. State. When North Carolina comes to Heinz Field Oct. 29, it will be only its second game on unfriendly soil. The Tar Heels opened the season in Charlotte against South Carolina.
Don’t feel persecuted, Pitt fans. Every ACC team has four conference games at home and four on the road. Duke plays all four of its ACC road games in the final six weeks of the season, but gets Pitt at home Nov. 14.
— In each of the past four seasons when Pitt won six regular-season games, it didn’t become bowl eligible until the last or next-to-last game. If it beats Syracuse, Pitt (5-1) will reach the minimum standard at the earliest point since the Panthers were 6-1 on Oct. 16, 2009.
I was late for College Football Locker Room on TribLive Radio on Wednesday, but Bob Cohn and John Harris kept the conversation lively with talk of Penn State’s debacle in Columbus, West Virginia’s questionable future in the Big 12 and Narduzzi poking the Nittany Lions with a stick.

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October 19, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Wait, did Narduzzi take a shot at Penn State?

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You see, this is what sets Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi apart from other coaches:
Unlike his predecessor at Pitt (whose initials often matched his remarks), Narduzzi is not afraid to jab a rival.
He offered a good example of that Monday at his weekly news conference when he was asked if quarterback Nathan Peterman’s accuracy is a product of talent or play-calling. Peterman is 17th in the nation with a 66.7 percent completion percentage (74 of 111).
Narduzzi, at first, praised Peterman as “one of the most accurate quarterbacks I’ve been around.”
Then he added this zinger: “Is it play-calling? Yeah, of course. You can have a talented quarterback with a bad play-caller and make him look bad. We’ve seen that around the country, some closer than others.”
Was he talking about Penn State, which fits the criteria Narduzzi set forth? Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, at one time projected to be a No. 1 draft choice, is struggling with a 53.1 completion percentage (97th in the nation).
Feeling good about Pitt’s first appearance in the AP Top 25 (No. 25) in five years, Narduzzi might have had Penn State on his mind when he made the remark. Gee, do you think?
Sept. 10 can’t get here fast enough.

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October 15, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi appears relaxed as game day approaches

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At his final media briefing of the week, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi appeared relaxed while sitting in a soft chair in his office. He talked about Georgia Tech’s triple option, but he also answered questions that had nothing to do with the game Saturday in Atlanta.
Some highlights:
James Conner
Narduzzi used different words, but pretty much repeated what he said Wednesday night on his radio show about Conner’s possible return this season from knee surgery.
“He’s getting ready to roll,” Narduzzi said. “We play it day by day. You never know.”
Conner is moving well, the coach said, even offering this unsolicited comment: “James is squatting pretty good.”
Narduzzi was coy (no surprise) when asked if he and Conner previously have discussed a possible return sometime in the next six weeks.
“We discuss little things every day,” he said.
I’m guessing Conner sits out the entire season, but like the coach said, you never know. On Narduzzi’s weekly injury report released Thursday, Conner’s name remains in the out-for-the-season category.
Jaryd Jones-Smith
Another knee injury victim, Jones-Smith could be ready for a possible bowl game, the coach said. But that’s not in the plans.
“He wouldn’t play in the bowl game, but he probably could,” Narduzzi said of the sophomore who would have started at right offensive tackle. He injured the knee about three months ago.
Allen Edwards
A transfer from Dean (Mass.) Community College, Edwards probably will be redshirted this season and have two years of eligibility at defensive end, starting in 2016. But Narduzzi said he has been tempted to activate Edwards because of his special athleticism at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds.
“It’s just a mental thing,” the coach said. “Athletically, he’s a freak. He’s going to be a really good player for us the next two years. So is (defensive end and Tennessee transfer) Dewayne Hendrix.”
Narduzzi said Edwards displayed his rare physical gifts at practice this week.
“Bis (6-6, 300-pound offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty) went to chop him on a pass set and he just jumped right over top of him. I said, `Whoa. You don’t see many guys do that.’
“Another year and he’s going to be so much better. You’re better off playing with a lesser athlete that knows what he’s doing than a great athlete who might stick it to you.”
Reggie Mitchell
The former starter at free safety, Mitchell has an injured foot and hasn’t played other than on special teams in the Virginia Tech game since the opener.
“I don’t think it’s more serious than what we thought,” Narduzzi said. “But maybe (we are) more precautious. I’ll leave it at that.”
Mitchell and wide receivers Tre Tipton (leg) and Chris Wuestner (abdomen) won’t play Saturday. Defensive end Zach Poker (foot) is out for the season, Narduzzi said. Linebacker Nicholas Grigsby (neck) is questionable.
Jordan Whitehead
Narduzzi said there remains a package in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s file for Pitt’s freshman strong safety. They’re just waiting for the right time to use it.
“I would think later on, we’ll pull it out,” Narduzzi said. (Note to self: Ask Chaney about it next week.)
Narduzzi said Chaney was joking when he said Whitehead needs to intercept a pass before he gets to play on offense. “But it’s a good point, too.”
Florida quarterback Will Grier
In light of Grier’s one-year suspension for using a banned, over-the-counter supplement, Narduzzi said Pitt diligently monitors such things in the players’ locker room.
“We address the situation, because you never know,” he said. “Sometimes, these guys go to GNC. It’s a legal vitamin, but it’s not legal by the NCAA. So you don’t ever know.”
He said trainers use a scanner that when placed in front of a locker can identify an illegal supplement.
“It’s amazing the technology you have. We make sure we check on our kids and make sure we know what they’re taking.”

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October 15, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Sounds like I missed a good time with the coach at Cupka’s

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I had no good reason for missing the “Pat Narduzzi Show” radio show Wednesday night at Cupka’s.
My work was done for the day (except for this blog), the food is good (especially the stuffed hot peppers) and Richie, Bill Hillgrove and the coach always attract a nice crowd of people (met old friend and ex-Trib pal Joe Bendel and his daughter there one night).
But I decided to catch the last 40 minutes on the car radio on 93.7 The Fan, and I almost missed a few interesting tidbits. No breaking news, but stuff that is of interest to Pitt fans.
Near the end of the show, a member of the audience asked Narduzzi for a health update on injured running back James Conner, who has missed almost the entire season with an MCL tear in his right knee.
Narduzzi said Conner has been moving around a bit at the training complex while working with Pitt’s trainers. (True. I watched Conner working out with other injured players Wednesday morning, and I noted that he was kicking his surgically repaired right knee as high as the other one. Whatever that means.)
Two days after Conner injured the knee in the opener against Youngstown State on Sept. 5, Narduzzi said Conner was lost for the season, and that seemed to be the end of the story. Conner, of course, did his homework and noted that several football players with MCL injuries have been able to return six to eight weeks after surgery. He told people close to him that he wanted to return this season and intended to do so. By the way, Conner’s surgery was five weeks and a day prior to Wednesday, Oct. 14.
But Narduzzi said at the time that he was more concerned about Conner’s future than one season. He said he has advised his star running back and his family that he should sit out the entire season and make sure the knee is completely healed.
Yet, Narduzzi opened the door just a crack for Conner’s return sometime in the next six weeks by saying, “You never know whether he’ll be back or not.”
Narduzzi’s point is that if Conner wants to return and can’t be talked out of it, nothing can stop him. Prior to Wednesday, Narduzzi said he wouldn’t stand in the way of someone’s dream, if that’s what he wanted.
I still believe Conner will take Narduzzi’s advice and stay away from the game until 2016, but let’s check back after the next, oh, three games.
Notre Dame? National TV? Heroic, Willis Reed-like comeback?
Doubtful, but I’ve learned never to say never.
By the way, Narduzzi had a good line earlier in the day on the ACC coaches’ conference call. Talking about Conner’s absence, he said, “We don’t have a back who is BYOB — Bring Your Own Blocker.”
The other interesting morsel was Narduzzi’s response to a caller who wanted to know about his commitment to Pitt in the face of possible future job offers.
Narduzzi was adamant and sounded completely sincere in his response that he loves the city and the people at Pitt, and has no intentions of going anywhere. He didn’t get into details, but I can tell you that Pitt has given him plenty of support, emotionally and financially (and I’m talking about much more than his salary).
Narduzzi is building what he hopes will be a solid program with staying power, and he doesn’t seem to be a job hopper. He noted that he spent 11 seasons with coach Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati and Michigan State before accepting the Pitt job (not his first offer). From my dealings with the man, he is nothing if not loyal.
Then, he added this kicker: “My wife would kill me if I told her we were moving.”
I’m sold.
A couple more items:
— Wide receiver Tyler Boyd spoke to assembled reporters Wednesday, and he noted that he expects double and triple coverage from Georgia Tech on Saturday. Virginia chased him all over the field with more than one defender last week, leaving tight ends J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff open for a couple of game-changing big plays.
“They are going to try and bracket me,” Boyd said of Georgia Tech. “I don’t think they have a player they believe in who can shadow a particular receiver.”
— It’s a big weekend for area college teams, and I’m not just talking about Pitt/Georgia Tech. Penn State and West Virginia play the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams Ohio State and Baylor. College football writers Bob Cohn, John Harris and myself broke it down Wednesday on TribLive Radio. It’s worth a click.
— Speaking of Georgia Tech, Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, one of the smartest coaches I’ve run across, had some interesting observations on how his unit will attack The Ramblin’ Wreck’s triple option.

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October 9, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Saturday prediction: Pitt 26, Virginia 21

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All signs point to a Pitt victory Saturday against Virginia at Heinz Field, and defense is the reason.
The new-look (but not really new) defense is making big plays — sacks, interceptions, a fumble recovery and even a blocked punt.
By the way, the latter is no surprise. Pitt has had at least one blocked kick (total: 46) every year since 2000, led by former safety Andrew Taglianetti’s six blocks from 2008-20011. In fact, Pitt had eight in 2008.
Actually, the 17 sacks and five turnovers also shouldn’t shock anyone, considering coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin have built their reputations on big plays. In fact, the five turnovers in four games is a light in Narduzzi’s eyes. His Michigan State unit had 34 last year (2.6 per game).
Of course, that team finished No. 5 in the final Associated Press rankings. This year’s Pitt team (3-1) is unranked, with a lot to prove.
For the fifth game of the season, Pitt has a lot on the line Saturday. The Panthers can improve to 2-0 in the ACC for the first time, not to mention the trivial pursuit of going 2-0 against Virginia teams.
The schedule gets tougher over the final five games — North Carolina, Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville and Miami — so building a cushion now is crucial.
Virginia has played a tough schedule. The ‘Hoos lost, 34-16, at No. 20 UCLA, at home to No. 15 Notre Dame, 34-27, when the Irish scored the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left and 56-14 to No. 25 Boise State in Charlottesville.
Even William & Mary of the FCS scored 29 points in a game Virginia won by only six. William & Mary is 2-2 and lost to Delaware. Remember Delaware last year? Pitt 62, Delaware 0.
Virginia linebackers coach Mike Archer said coaches warned their team about the dangers of taking William & Mary lightly. “Young kids today don’t listen,” he said.
All of a sudden, Virginia found itself clinging to a 35-29 lead with William & Mary on the Cavaliers’ 30-yard line. Virginia won, but Archer said, “We have eight games left. We can win eight games. We can lose eight games.”
This is the type of team Pitt can beat, must beat. But it won’t be easy. With Pitt, it never is
Pitt 26, Virginia 21.

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October 1, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi invites media into Pitt staff meeting (no, not really)

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I have to give Pat Narduzzi his due. The guy really knows how to make me laugh (well, at least chuckle a little).
During our weekly briefing with the Pitt coach Thursday (this time in his office where I grabbed the biggest, softest chair), Narduzzi indicated — he didn’t promise — that Qadree Ollison will start at running back at Virginia Tech.
That’s not the funny part.
Narduzzi said he didn’t know for sure about running back because he was going into a meeting with his coaches later in the day where they would decide who starts, who sits, who stays home and who gets a seat on the plane.
The funny part? I’m getting to it.
Then, he said, “You guys would love to be in that meeting.”
OK. It’s not your classic knee slapper, but it points out — in a light-hearted way — the line of demarcation between coach and media. Yes, sitting silently in the room while coaches discuss the roster is a reporter’s fantasy.
I’ll put it on my bucket list.
Narduzzi has good reason for leaning toward Ollison as his starter Saturday. He revealed four hours later that freshman running back Darrin Hall won’t play against the Hokies. Apparently, Hall suffered a leg injury at some point this week, and coaches weren’t prepared to rule him out until late Thursday afternoon. Hall started against Iowa, but only gained 38 yards on 14 carries.
He is expected to return next week for the Virginia game. Meanwhile, Ollison and sophomore Chris James , who has recently recovered from a concussion, will shoulder the entire workload at running back.
Not long ago — actually, only a little more than a month — Pitt had remarkable depth at running back. Now, James Conner (knee), Rachid Ibrahim (Achilles) and Hall are out; the first two for the rest of the season.
Thursday also marked the first injury report I have received from a Pitt coach in at least three years.
Each ACC team is required to share injury information with its opponent that week, and the coaches are encouraged (though, it’s not enforced) to include the media in the release. Former coach Paul Chryst chose not to share.
The rest of the injury report included the information — so far, unreported — that freshman offensive lineman Alex Paulina of Canon-McMillan is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Paulina was being redshirted, anyway.
Listed as probable are free safety Reggie Mitchell (foot) and defensive end Ejuan Price (quad). Narduzzi said Mitchell will play special teams, but Terrish Webb will start in the spot Mitchell occupied for the entirety of spring drills and summer training camp before getting hurt in the opener.
Webb has played well, the coach said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

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September 24, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi gives honest assessment of his team

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t always reveal his innermost thoughts. Maddeningly, he’ll conceal even the tiniest, most insignificant scrap of information about his team when talking to reporters. (Which is what most coaches do, by the way.)
But when he wants to send a message, he’s refreshingly honest.
Wednesday was one of those times.
Narduzzi can sound encouraging even while offering criticism — it’s a gift most of us wish we had — so he was honest while chatting with reporters about how certain members of his team can improve.
Most likely, it was nothing he hadn’t already told his team directly or through his coaching staff. But it was still instructive for those covering the team to hear it from the head coach.
For example:
The interior offensive line needs to be quicker off the ball and more physical, he said. He even named right guard Alex Officer by name. He pointed out how center Artie Rowell can improve — while introducing him during a live broadcast of his radio show.
You think Tyler Boyd was immune? Wrong.
Boyd deserves to get the ball, Narduzzi said, but if he wants to be a great NFL receiver, he needs to improve his run blocking.
Quarterback Nate Peterman missed a wide-open Boyd in the end zone the play before throwing an interception against Iowa. But he played a “very, very solid game,” and “spearheaded” the offensive attack.
Chad Voytik is the team’s fierest competitor, but he’s still going to the bench in favor of Peterman.
In his postgame remarks Saturday in Iowa City, Narduzzi said punter Ryan Winslow mishit an important fourth-quarter punt.
Pitt is far from perfect, and no one knows that better than its highly observant coach. He’ll defend his players against all outside offenders, but he won’t let them get away with sub-standard play.

By the way, episode 4 of the College Locker Room show on TribLive Radio, with Bob Cohn, John Harris, Josh Taylor and myself hit the ‘Net Wednesday. Take a listen.

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September 19, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Good reading on a Saturday morning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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Interesting reading Saturday morning in the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette.
Four-page broad sheet, including stories on Pitt/Iowa and Iowa State/Toledo, picks (my favorite) and a story by Marc Morehouse on Pitt/Iowa being moved to prime time on the Big Ten Network.
The story has an interesting qoute from BTN senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner:
“If you look at Iowa’s home schedule in the past and it really hasn’t had games of that nature, intersectional games of that nature on its schedule,” Rudner told the Gazette. “When you have an ACC opponent come to town and it’s not otherwise selected by ESPN or ABC, then it becomes available.”
Score another one for Pitt’s move to the ACC. Maybe it was the obvious choice, but you have to give former AD Steve Pederson credit for helping to make it happen.
Saturday night’s game marks the first time the lights (now permanent at a cost of $350,000) have been turned on at Kinnick since Iowa played Penn State in 2012.
The Gazette’s “Pick ‘Ems” column is great, featuring references to the Pirates’ Manny Sanguillen, the Penguins’ Darius Kasparaitis, Brad Pitt, the Cedar Rapids Kernels (minor-league baseball team) and all six writers predicting a Hawkeyes victory by an average score of 25.8-17.6.
I have to agree: Iowa 31, Pitt 24
Why?
Maybe I’d feel differently if James Conner was healthy, a presence that would put points on Pitt’s side of the scoreboard and keep Iowa’s offense off the field.
Or, if this game kicked off at noon, there might be a different outcome. There is something about a night game at Kinnick that’s going to drive about 70,000 Hawkeyes fans delirious, and I wonder how Pitt will be able to handle that atmosphere.
If Pitt wins, seniors Darryl Render, Lafayette Pitts, Artie Rowell, J.P. Holtz, K.K. Mosley-Smith, Nicholas Grigsby and Ejuan Price will be a big part of it. Their leadership ability can’t be minimized in a emotional game such as this one.
Two more tidbits:
— If you have the time and the right cable system, there are 29 college football games on TV Saturday, according to the Gazette.
— Pitt hasn’t won here since 1931. (Of course, that’s in a sample size of three games.)

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