It had to be good for them to say the two words out loud: “Penn”
For months now, no one around the Pitt program has wanted to talk about the Nittany Lions specifically. Pat Narduzzi and his coaches tried to drive home the point all training camp long to their players: “DON’T OVERLOOK VILLANOVA!”
The players spent this entire week trying to convince the media: “WE AREN’T OVERLOOKING VILLANOVA.”
Well now the one week at a time cliche can be tossed aside. Because for the first time in 16 years, it is officially Penn State week.
And Pat Narduzzi wasted no time in making that abundantly clear.
In the moments after Pitt’s 28-7 win vs Villanova, the Panther head coach made an emphatic proclamation in the locker room that it was time for players to start preparing for the Nittany Lions.
Did it feel good to finally acknowledge the giant blue and white elephant that has been in the room since the schedule was announced?
“It does. It’s an in-state rivalry game. Our guys will be ready to play.” stated Narduzzi. “We’re playing for the state of Pennsylvania.”
So what did you say, coach?
Narduzzi didn’t respond with words. Just a sly smile and silence.
Well, whatever he said it must have worked.
“We were all pretty fired up,” smiled tight end Scott Orndoff. “Since we started in camp everyone has been asking ‘What about Penn State?’ Now it’s here. It’s real.”
Also “real” are the challenges of getting better fast. Pitt’s defense was sound against the Wildcats. Nova’s only TD came on a sack/fumble after a big hit on quarterback Nate Peterman. But the offense was so-so at best. It totaled just 261 yards against their FCS opponents. James Conner barely averaged three yards per carry (17-for-57) in his return. If it weren’t for Quadree Henderson’s kick return TD to open the second half, and a couple of his strong punt returns, Pitt may have struggled to get to double digits. Peterman was only 19-32. And the Panthers only averaged 5.5 yards per pass attempt.
“We have a lot of things to clean up. We left two touchdowns at least out there that were all on me,” lamented the quarterback. “I gotta get better. I’ll improve this week.”
His receivers need to get better too. Orndoff had a strong game catching five balls for 68 yards. But all the other receivers combined were a meager 8-for-87.
“We all need help with little things. Like taking wide release on outside releases,” explained Quadree Henderson. “We should get better as the season progresses.”
Well that progress better come between now and Saturday because “the season” in the eyes of some fans begins and ends Saturday.
It shouldn’t be viewed that way. But, hey, Penn State n’at… ya know?
Narduzzi brimmed with confidence that his team will improve.
“I think we’ll be OK. No. I’m not worried. We’ll make that improvement. Everybody across the country will make their most improvement between week one and week two. So will the guys down the street.”
That “street” was referring to whatever route you prefer to take to get to State College. And to be clear, Penn State wasn’t exactly dominant in dispatching Kent State 33-13 either. That was a 16-13 game at the half.
So improvement needs to come from both sides at Heinz Field if the aesthetics of the game are to catch up to the passion. That much is clear. But the players are into it already. Even if some of them were barely alive the last time these two teams played.
“I’m embracing it a lot. That’s our rivalry. We want to go out there and beat them next week,” beamed Henderson.
Understandable. And now he’s even allowed to say it out loud.