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Interview with Football Frenemies: Pittsburgh Panthers Edition

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Will Penn State have an easier time against a team that it’s more familiar with?

Albany v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

There are all sorts of angles to dive into when you want to talk about this Saturday’s college football rivalry game between Penn State and Pittsburgh. On one side, the Nittany Lions are looking to prove that last weekend’s pitiful fourth-quarter defensive performance was a fluke. They’re also in search of a road win in Pittsburgh that slipped through their fingers when Trace McSorley through a late interception in 2016.

The Panthers are a very different team than the one that Penn State handled a year ago. New quarterback Kenny PIckett already has an upset victory over Miami as a feather in his cap from last year, so the offense should be much more effective than when Max Browne and Ben DiNucci were under center. Even with a stable quarterback situation, making a bowl game will be tough this year due to Pitt’s brutal schedule, so an early upset over Penn State would go a long way towards that goal. Back in 2017, Pitt was able to run the ball on the Lions, so this game should prove a stiff test for the young blue-and-white front seven.

For more on how Pittsburgh fans feeling heading into this game, we talked to Anson Whaley (AKA CardiacHill) from SB Nation’s Pitt blog, Cardiac Hill. Thanks to Anson for being a good sport and carving out some time for us.

Black Shoe Diaries: As a true freshman last November, Kenny Pickett performed well by completing more than 60 percent of his passes against both Virginia Tech and Miami. How do Pitt fans feel about him as the quarterback of the future? What caused his performance to cool off in the second half against Albany?

Cardiac Hill: The majority of fans are on board with Pickett. I believe he’s shown a lot of poise thus far in his limited action, but I still need to see him play a bit more. To date, he’s really only played in a handful of games and I think the jury is still out on him a little. But so far, he’s certainly looked the part and a lot of fans believe he will be pretty good.

I think Pickett’s second-half performance was probably attributed to Pitt taking the foot off the pedal a little bit. The Panthers were up 33-7 at halftime and I don’t know how much motivation there was to keep pouring it on. He did make a few mistakes out there to be sure, including running directly into defenders and trying to dive for a first down before subsequently fumbling the ball. Pat Narduzzi mentioned in his weekly press conference that Pickett has been instructed to, well, avoid those types of plays, as the depth behind him is questionable. But in general, Pitt really shows very little in season-openers and, after racing out to a big lead, the offense in general was probably playing a little more conservative.

BSD: Darrin Hall became a major factor in the Pitt running game late last season, but on Saturday he only carried the ball four times compared to 20 totes by Qadree Ollison and A.J. Davis combined. Will it be Davis and Ollison once again leading the way against Penn State, or will Hall see a resurgence this weekend? Who do you see as the most talented guy in the backfield?

CH: Narduzzi has really swapped running backs around quite a bit during his tenure here. Your guess is frankly as good as anybody’s as to what we’ll see Saturday. Typically, Narduzzi’s MO is to play the hot hand and he also enjoys mixing it up to get fresh legs in there as much as possible. We could see Hall get the majority of the carries and Ollison shut out. You just rarely ever know. If someone is ripping off big gain after big gain, they’ll stay in. But in general, Narduzzi will plug and play quite a bit with different guys.

I was surprised to see Davis get as many carries as he did against Albany but that could also have something to do with not putting too much strain on Ollison and Hall in a game that was won pretty early. Truth be told, though, Davis was a well-regarded four-star recruit that had a big offer sheet and at this point, he’s legitimately worked his way onto the depth chart in some fashion. With Hall and Ollison both seniors, he will get some opportunities this year if for no other reason than to give him some more experience heading into next season.

In terms of identifying the most talented guy, it’s really rotated between Ollison and Hall. Both have had very good games and both have also struggled at times. I think that is probably the reason why Narduzzi has opted to use them as a two-headed monster.

BSD: Rafael Araujo-Lopes figures to lead the Panthers in receptions again. After averaging 12 yards per catch in 2017, the senior gained 50 yards on just three catches in his 2018 debut with a pair of touchdowns. Was he targeted deeper down the field against Albany than he was last year? If so, will the trend continue against FBS opponents?

CH: I don’t know that Araujo-Lopes will be a consistent deep threat. At only 5’9”, he’s going to have trouble in a role like that. Pitt lost its big play guy in Jester Weah, who graduated. Araujo-Lopes is mostly known for his hands and isn’t a burner by any stretch of the imagination. He is probably the most dependable receiver on the team right now but that’s mostly by default and I don’t think he’s a guy that will get to 1,000 yards this year. He will likely come through with a big game or two but that is probably going to be the exception and not the rule.

That’s less of a knock on him and more a recognition that Pitt will probably spread the ball around a little more. I don’t know that they’ll be taking a ton of shots downfield this year as a whole and look for them to mostly stick with shorter and mid-range throws. Pickett’s arm isn’t a cannon, either, and that makes a shorter passing game more likely. That said, now the team will probably prove me wrong and go out there slinging the ball all over the field on Saturday.

BSD: Last season, Pitt was able to slow down the Penn State passing attack even without Jordan Whitehead, the safety who was selected in the NFL Draft this spring. With cornerback Avonte Maddox also having moved on to the professional ranks, are Pitt fans confident that Dane Jackson and the rest of the secondary can get the job done against a more experienced Trace McSorley?

CH: Not at all. At least I’m not. Pitt did hold Penn State’s passing game in check but got torched the year before when McSorley threw for 332 yards.

The secondary very much remains a concern for me and losing their two best starters obviously doesn’t help ease that fear. Even Jackson, who I figured would be the top cornerback on the depth chart, remains tied up in a battle to start with Phillippe Motley, a redshirt senior. I’m still trying to figure out if that’s Jackson under-performing or Motley over-performing, but the secondary isn’t entirely settled yet. The team did play better there at the end of last year but, as you noted, that was also with two NFL Draft picks.

Pitt has been really hitting the secondary hard in terms of recruiting and I think the unit can be pretty good. If they’re good right now, though, is another question and I’m not as sold on the group yet as some fans are.

BSD: The Panthers averaged fewer than two sacks per game in 2017, but they got off to a fast start last Saturday with five sacks against Albany, including two by sophomore defensive tackle Keyshon Camp. Can this year’s more experienced front seven turn up the pressure against a Penn State offensive line that looked surprisingly shaky against Appalachian State?

CH: While I’m concerned about the secondary, I do think that Pitt’s front seven will be very good this year. They returned virtually everyone and at least five (possibly six) of the starters on Saturday should be upperclassmen. That is a very experienced group with a lot of returning starters and their play is going to be critical to helping the secondary out. I expect Pitt will be solid against the run on Saturday and that will probably put even more pressure on the secondary to perform.

BSD: After three years at Pittsburgh, head coach Pat Narduzzi hasn’t yet been able to replicate the success he had as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State. What are the expectations for Narduzzi in his fourth season? Is a breakout campaign possible with Pickett now under center, or will a tough schedule featuring non-conference road games at Notre Dame and Central Florida be too much?

CH: So far, Narduzzi has made good progress. The team had won no more than six regular season games in each of the four years before he arrived and he immediately led them to eight wins in each of his first two regular seasons. Fans are a little down on him after last year’s 5-7 season, but that was largely due to injuries and inefficiency at quarterback. This year, I’d like to see Pitt get to 7-5 and then make a big push next season to really do some damage. That’s not great, obviously, but with a new starter at quarterback, lingering secondary questions, and a schedule that includes five ranked teams, I don’t know how high the ceiling can reasonably be for them. Perhaps the team surprises and gets past all of that but there are a lot of hurdles.

The perspective of some fans regarding Narduzzi is unfortunate because Pitt has had a carousel of guys after Dave Wannstedt and many don’t have much patience even despite that horror show. But it’s pretty clear to me that Narduzzi has the team headed in the right direction and any kind of talk of a hot seat is kind of silly at this point. Wannstedt started his career going 16-19 in his first three years without reaching any bowls and there were calls for his head, too. After that, Pitt won 19 games the next two seasons and I believe got into the top 10 at one point.

There’s plenty of room for improvement with Narduzzi, but I’m convinced the guy can coach. You don’t beat teams like No. 2 Clemson and No. 2 Miami in back-to-back years by mistake. Pitt fans wanting to throw him on the hot seat should exercise some patience. If it was up to some people, coaches would be fired after only 2-3 years on the job. You can’t build anything that way. Fans are fickle, though, and I understand that. If Narduzzi pulls off a win Saturday, they’ll want to sign him to a 20-year contract. Just the way things work.

BSD: Pittsburgh is a nine-point underdog on Saturday. How do you see the game going for the Panthers?

CH: I fully expect Pitt be much more competitive on Saturday than they were against Penn State last year. I don’t know that things are aligned for them to pull off an upset but they appear to be upgraded at quarterback and the front seven on defense looks very good. Getting the game at home will help.

In the end, though, I’m not sure it’s enough. Penn State is a top-15 team and while Narduzzi has demonstrated he can pull off upsets, it’s not as easy as it looks. Those wins come once in a while; not every time out. I also expect the Nittany Lions to be very motivated and not wanting a repeat of 2016 when the Pitt game cost them dearly. There’s a lot of talk about Pitt not wanting to be embarrassed again after last year but I imagine the 2016 Pitt game is still in the minds of Penn State’s coaches and players, too. Pitt winning the game wouldn’t surprise me much but I’ll say Penn State wins, 27-21.

Thanks again to Anson for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. For more on Pitt football all season long, make sure to follow Cardiac Hill!