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November 26, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Happy Thanksgiving, and here’s one last bread crumb for the season: A Miami/Pitt prediction

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It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the Pitt players and coaches — at some point during the day — will check into a hotel for their weekly day-before-the-game meetings, dinner (turkey and stuffing, I hope) and lights-out well before midnight.
It’s one of the prices college and pro athletes pay. A holiday is just another day.
Kickoff for the final regular-season game is noon Friday, with ESPN2 doing the TV honors and former Pitt quarterback John Congemi providing the analysis.
I thought Louisville would be Pitt’s toughest opponent other than Iowa, North Carolina and Notre Dame, but Pitt dominated a good portion of that game.
Miami, with quarterback Brad Kaaya throwing the football from one sideline to the other (often down the field), might be better than Louisville. Perhaps the game will be decided on how well Pitt cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts and Avonte Maddox play.
Look for another fierce Pitt pass rush, but a close game — 38-35, Pitt. Keep your foot warm and dry, Chris Blewitt.

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November 20, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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One year’s time makes a big difference for Pitt

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A year ago, Pitt was 4-6, a loser of six of eight games and (even though no one knew at the time) less than a month from another coach search — its third in four years.
To the players’ credit, Pitt beat Syracuse and Miami to become bowl eligible, but the Orange and ‘Canes hardly seemed interested. Paul Chryst certainly wasn’t interested in finishing what he started when he was lured by the chance to coach his alma mater, Wisconsin.
With two games left in this season, Pitt is 7-3, with an athletic director who actually listens to his head coach and a head coach whose commitment to the university is the strongest of anyone in his position since the final days of Dave Wannstedt.
The other difference, however, is Saturday’s opponent, Louisville, won’t be subdued easily, even though it might only be the fourth-best team on Pitt’s schedule.
The Cardinals are athletic on defense, and their offense is functionally well, with Kyle Bolin at quarterback and Brandon Radcliff at running back. Slow down those two to a significant extent and Pitt will win.
Pitt has a lot at stake, most notably a chance to win nine games by beating Louisville on Saturday and Miami next Friday. Pitt hasn’t taken nine victories into its bowl game since 2009.
Even though it’s a longshot, Pitt still has a chance to win the ACC Coastal Division, but North Carolina must lose two while Pitt is winning two. The Tar Heels are on the road for both games, starting with Virginia Tech on Saturday in Hokies coach Frank Beamer’s last home game before retirement.
I expect a close game at Heinz Field, but Louisville will extend its winning streak to five in a row (seven of eight), 27-23.
Feel free to disagree.
I don’t think a loss to Louisville will affect Pitt’s bowl berth greatly, unless the Panthers also lose next week to Miami. If so, perhaps it’s hello (again), Birmingham. Yes, the Birmingham Bowl — no longer sponsored by BBVA –is on the long list of bowls with ties to the ACC.
As it stands now, Clemson will play in the College Football Playoff semifinal, if it wins the ACC Championship game (maybe even if it doesn’t).
Florida State or North Carolina would go to the Russell Athletic. That leaves the Sun, Belk, Pinstripe, Music City and Taxslayer to juggle FSU or UNC, Pitt, Louisville, N.C. State, Miami, Duke and Virginia Tech (assuming the five-victory Hokies reach bowl eligibility).
It will be interesting to see which bowls send representatives to Heinz Field on Saturday.

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November 14, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Saturday in Durham represents defining moment for Pitt

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Game day in Durham, N.C., and the sun is shining on refurbished Wallace Wade Stadium.
Before boarding a flight Friday, I spent 10 minutes with Stan Savran on WBGG/ESPN Radio.
Stan, an all-time great Pittsburgh media member and one of the most astute observers of this area’s sports scene for about four decades, made a good point during our chat: Pitt’s game against Duke is a defining moment in coach Pat Narduzzi’s first season.
Win, and Pitt (6-3, 4-1) has a chance to turn this season into something special by coming home and playing two mediocre (overall record-wise) teams Louisville and Miami. How does 8-4 sound, Pitt fans, after four consecutive 6-6s?
Lose, and Pitt extends its losing streak to three and is confronted with trying to save the season from falling into the miserable ennui that infested the past four seasons.
By the way, I looked up the word ennui (heard it once in a Frank Sinatra song): “A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”
Does that describe the attitude of Pitt fans — and some players — during bowl season 2011-2014?
I think so.
Prediction: Pitt 31, Duke 28.

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November 13, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Final thoughts before Pitt leaves for Durham and a date with Duke

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Coach Pat Narduzzi touched on several topics Thursday in his final press briefing before the Duke game.
The most interesting? I guess it’s the decision to tone down the fourth quarter party.
It started after the opener when Narduzzi didn’t like his team’s passivity entering the fourth quarter of the Youngstown State game. Pitt won, but YSU scored two touchdowns in the final quarter.
So, players decided to fire themselves up at the end of the third quarter by jumping up and down like mad men, squirting water bottles at each other and encircling one or two guys doing rapid-fire pushups. All of this was happening while coaches waited to discuss fourth-quarter strategy.
It worked for a while, but Iowa, Virginia and Georgia Tech scored one touchdown each in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame hit the Panthers with two.
Narduzzi said it’s time to cool it.
“I was shaking my head last week,” he said. “It’s good they are enthusiastic. If you ask them to do something, they will do it.
“But you can’t have a frat party. Maybe a dinner party. We are going to change it up a little bit.”
To that, I say: “Good call, coach.”

Narduzzi scoffed at the Duke injury report that lists quarterback Thomas Sirk as questionable with an upper body injury.
“They say he’s questionable,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a tough kid. He runs like Larry Csonka. The guy’s a beast. We expect him to play.”
Sirk, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, is Duke’s leading rusher with 555 yards and five touchdowns. He’s hard to bring down; opponents have only six sacks in nine games.
Consider Sirk’s passing yardage (1,979), and Duke would be in trouble without him.

Pitt’s running game could use a boost after Qadree Ollison has totaled only 86 yards in the past two games after going back-to-back with 83 and 98 yards against Georgia Tech and Syracuse.
Narduzzi said “don’t count out” Darrin Hall, who might have hit the freshman wall earlier this season. Hall had games of 52, 38 and 38 yards by midseason, but he has had only three carries in the past three games.
“He’s been better this week (in practice),” Narduzzi said. “You never know. Maybe he’s got a new girlfriend.”

Narduzzi has argued with officials on several occasions this season, but in the solitude of a conference room (between games, with reporters around him), he was of no mind to criticize them.
“There is no bigger problem in the ACC than there is the Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC. It’s all the same,” he said. “It’s not an easy job. They work their tails off to get it done.
“They’ll get some things wrong. They’ll get some things right. It’s part of the game. It’s human error and it’s going to happen.”
I’ll have more on Narduzzi and the officials in Saturday’s game-day package in the Trib and on Triblive.com.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe seemed enthused Wednesday when he was asked about running back Jela Duncan, who has played in only six games, but is averaging 7.4 yards per carry.
Duncan, 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, was Duke’s leading rusher in 2012 and 2013 before he was suspended for the ’13 bowl game and the ’14 season due to an academic issue. He had surgery on both shoulders last year, and a pectoral injury kept him out of the first three games this year.
“He’s just now getting into football condition and shape,” Cutcliffe said. “I was very proud of him and his effort and intensity. He will have an impact for us down the stretch, no question.”
Not a lot of good came out of Duke’s 66-31 loss to North Carolina last week, but Duncan ran for 115 yards and Shaqiulle Powell added 98 – both on just 13 carries each.

Pitt fans should be concerned that defensive tackles Tyrique Jarrett and Mark Scarpinato are listed as doubtful with lower and upper body injuries, respectively. That hurts the starting lineup and the depth at the position.
Still, I get the feeling Pitt’s defense will recover against Duke. The teams have each scored a total of 106 points against each other in the past two games, but I think Narduzzi will tackle someone himself if Duke gets close to 50 points this time. Plus, Sirk’s injury — even if he plays — can’t be good for the Blue Devils’ chances.
I also look for a big game from Nathan Peterman and Tyler Boyd after the Irish shut down the Pitt passing game for the most part last week.
Watch, but don’t bet: Pitt 31, Duke 28.

Boyd, by the way, got his per-catch average up to 10.0 with his 51-yard touchdown reception late in the Notre Dame game. It also gave him Pitt’s all-time record in receiving yards (3,097) as he passed Antonio Bryant. He had previously set the reception record. He now has 229 catches in less than three seasons, 27 more than Devin Street had in four years.

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November 6, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Trib reader shares tale from Tony Dorsett’s big day

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Just a quick note to thank those readers who commented on my story Thursday about Tony Dorsett’s record-breaking 303-yard game against Notre Dame on Nov. 15, 1975, at Pitt Stadium. It’s been a while since I received so much feedback from one of my Pitt stories.
All were appreciated, but I thought I’d share West Deer reader Vince Mercuri’s recollections of that day 40 years ago.
Wrote Vince:
“I was there on the sideline as a 19-year-old fan. I had a high school friend who was on the team and that is how I was on the sideline.
“After the game in the locker room, among the wild celebration, I approached TD (Dorsett), gave him a hand slap and asked him for something for me to remember the game.
“He threw me his left elbow (pad). Before walking away, I asked him to sign it, which he did. He then went on to an interview with a reporter, I think ABC.
“I have had the elbow pad appraised by sports collectors, been offered between $500 and $1,000. Not interested, too valuable of a memory.
“My three adult kids all joke that they will be fighting over it when I pass.
“It will always rank as the best game I ever saw. Hard to believe it has been 40 years.”
Vince said he will attend Saturday’s game against Notre Dame as part of his 59th birthday celebration.
Vince, enjoy. Thanks for reading and writing.

I don’t know why, but I looked up Pitt’s record against Notre Dame after the Panthers won the national championship in 1976. It’s 8-18.
Overall, Pitt is 21-47-1 against the Irish, breaking a three-game Notre Dame winning streak in 2013 when safety Ray Vinopal intercepted two passes. After that game, an invited high school prospect made the unfortunate decision of taking a phone into the winning locker room and making a video of then-coach Paul Chryst in a victory dance. True story. Nothing Chryst did in his three years at Pitt surprised me more than that.
More Pitt/Irish trivia:
— There was a scoreless tie in 1911.
— Pitt’s first four victories in the series — 1932-34 and 1936 — were shutouts.
— Notre Dame has two long winning streaks in the series (eight games, 1943-1951) and (11 games, 1964-1974).
— The longest continuous streak of games between the teams was 23 (1956-1978).

Pitt has invited several top high school prospects to the game, hoping to capitalize on what could be an electric atmosphere and packed house at Heinz Field.
Coach Pat Narduzzi said he hopes the recruits considering Pitt will take advantage of the entire campus experience, not just the game.
“I hope it’s not all about the game,” he said. “There are only six or seven of them a year. There are 300-plus other days (when) they have to be happy at Pitt. It’s not all about the game-day atmosphere. It’s more about the other days. Everybody has a great game-day atmosphere.
“We will have a lot of good recruits here, but they are here every week.”
Pitt has 11 verbal commitments from the Class of 2016, including nine who are rated three- and four-stars by Rivals.com.

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November 5, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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To Pitt’s Caprara, all this Notre Dame talk `gets old’

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Pitt linebacker Mike Caprara doesn’t hate Notre Dame. He doesn’t even dislike the Irish. His uncle Joe Caprara kicked for Notre Dame in the 1950s, and Mike is proud to call himself Joe’s nephew.
But the way he feels is a football player’s thing. Perhaps you wouldn’t understand.
He is just tired of hearing about Notre Dame. As in: Hey, Pitt plays football, too.
“I wouldn’t say there is much dislike, but it does get old,” Caprara said after practice Wednesday. “Having the high reputation, I give them credit. That’s really something that’s unique.
“Being an opponent, it just gets old. I want to get out there (on the field Saturday) and just silence everything.”
The past few days have been filled with talk of Pitt/Notre Dame, both within and without Pitt’s practice facility. Caprara has bought into it, too.
“Growing up in Pittsburgh, this the game you want to be playing in. This is the game you live for,” he said.
You didn’t hear anything like that coming from Pitt players before, say, the Georgia Tech game.
Playing Notre Dame is special. The media knows that. The ticket-buying public knows that. The players know that. Even Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said this is a game players from both teams mark on their calendars.
If the crowd Saturday isn’t the largest of the season for a college game at Heinz Field, I’ll be shocked.
That’s why I was surprised when Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz said Tuesday’s practice was less than satisfactory. This is Notre Dame week, after all. What gives?
But Caprara said the atmosphere went from flat to charged Wednesday.
“A lot of guys got together and looked at the tape (of Tuesday’s practice),” he said. “It was a night and day difference. It was a great practice (Wednesday). We got a lot done.”
Actually, the game has greater meaning for Notre Dame than it does for Pitt. The Irish (7-1) are No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff rankings; in other words, right on the cusp of the Final Four. So much to gain, so much to lose.
For Pitt, it’s a non-conference game. Win it, and it would be good for confidence and credibility — all those things you can’t touch. Lose it and beat Duke, Louisville and Miami the next three weeks, and there’s a good chance Pitt will play for the ACC championship.

I saw the first 30 minutes of practice Tuesday and Wednesday, and it looked pretty normal to me. I only saw calisthenics and a few routine drills. No scrimmage plays.
But joining his teammates for calisthenics for the first time since his injury (again, I only see 30 minutes a day, twice a week) was James Conner.
I’m not reading too much into it because Conner, who has missed all but the first quarter of the first game with a knee injury, was out there without his helmet. He went inside (presumably for treatment) when the real hitting started.
But coach Pat Narduzzi said on his radio show Wednesday that he believes Conner might be well enough to play in the final couple games. He didn’t define the word couple, however, and after Saturday there are only four games remaining in the season — five if Pitt finds a way to win the Coastal Division of the ACC.
Narduzzi also said the decision will be up to Conner and his family. It’s been almost two months since his surgery.
Two months from now, he’ll have to make another decision — whether or not to declare for the NFL Draft.

Final note: Check out today’s edition of the College Football Locker Room on Trib Live Radio with Trib sports writers Bob Cohn, Bill West, John Harris and myself.
Lots of talk about the future of West Virginia football, and we have weekend predictions, too.

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October 29, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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There is no such thing as a must-win for a first-place team in October, but …

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Pitt’s game Thursday night against North Carolina at Heinz Field does not constitute a must-win situation for the Panthers.
Pitt (6-1, 4-0 in the ACC) can lose and still win the ACC Coastal by winning its final three conference games at Duke (no picnic) and at home with Louisville and Miami. It will need some help, though.
A North Carolina victory would give the Tar Heels (6-1, 3-0) sole possession of first place, pending Duke’s home game against Miami on Saturday. But North Carolina still must play Duke (6-1, 3-0) and Miami before traveling (yeah, they’re short trips) to Virginia Tech and North Carolina State.
If Pitt loses tonight, it cedes control of its destiny. The Panthers could finish 10-2 and 7-1 and still lose the division if North Carolina wins the remainder of its games (not likely, but possible in the weak Coastal).
Those are the metrics, but a Pitt victory is important for another reason:
For the doubters, it would further validate what coach Pat Narduzzi, his staff and players have done. The 6-1 record and four-game winning streak are encouraging and products of hard work and careful planning, but critics point out (accurately) that Pitt has not defeated a winning team. North Carolina, though unranked, would be that team.
Pitt’s six victims have combined for a 17-27 record.
I look for Pitt to struggle against North Carolina. Even in victory, Pitt keeps its fans on edge, winning five of six by eight points or fewer.
The first-half defensive problems in the past two victories against Georgia Tech and Syracuse are a concern. Narduzzi called the tackling effort against Syracuse “embarrassing.”
Give Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin major props for making the proper adjustments at halftime of both games, but North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams is a better all-around player than either Justin Thomas of Georgia Tech and Eric Dungey of Syracuse.
Williams will be tough to get on the ground. Plus, the Tar Heels probably will present the best pass defense quarterback Nathan Peterman has seen this season. My prediction can be heard on this College Locker Room show link on TribLive Radio with colleagues Bob Cohn, Bill West and Josh Taylor. (John Harris was off covering Pitt basketball.)

Keeping up with Pitt is a full-time job, but I have kept a casual eye on Wisconsin and Florida International where former Pitt coach Paul Chryst and ex-defensive coordinator Matt House now are employed.
Wisconsin is 6-2, with a shot at finishing the regular season 10-2 after a closing stretch of Rutgers, Maryland, Northwestern and Minnesota. Chryst probably lost his chance at winning the Big Ten West in a 10-6 defeat at home against Iowa. Against the undefeated Hawkeyes, Wisconsin scored no touchdowns and lost at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time in 11 games.
Florida International is 4-4 and in third place in the East Division of Conference USA. House’s defense is 65th in the nation (392.6 yards per game), but FIU has allowed the second-fewest points in the conference (181).
Pitt, of course, has flourished so far under a new coaching staff. In a trade of defensive coordinators — Conklin was at FIU last year — Pitt is 16th in the nation in yards allowed this season (308.3 yards, 51.5 less per game than at the end of 2014).
Narduzzi recorded his sixth victory at Pitt almost six weeks before Chryst did in 2012. But one item that surprised me: 14 of Chryst’s 19 victories in three years were by margins of 10 or more.
Pitt is a better-coached team this season (especially on defense), and two of the most important additions to the team are offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and Peterman. A nice package deal, for sure.
Chryst and House did not enjoy much success at Pitt, but I admired and respected their efforts and the way they treated people. Despite what some people think, Chryst left the program in better shape than he found it.

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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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