PITTSBURGH — “I’m hoping we can step up and play well and not get anybody hurt.”
Ironically, it was Villanova head coach Andy Talley that said that before the season opener between his Wildcats and the Pitt Panthers, but of course, that sentiment was shared by both coaches.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the injuries came early and often against Villanova. Linebacker Elijah Zeise and defensive end Dewayne Hendrix both went down in the first quarter.
KDKA’s Richie Walsh reported on Monday that Hendrix has a broken foot. That type of injury would usually keep a player out for four-to-six weeks, but Narduzzi called Hendrix and Zeise both “day-to-day” at his press conference on Monday.
Pittsburgh Sports Now has learned that Hendrix and Zeise did not practice with the team on Tuesday. Zeise was seen on crutches Tuesday afternoon. His injury is to his left ankle and occurred when his leg got rolled up at the end of a running play:
(GIF courtesy Ashley Chase)
Narduzzi has a less-than-stellar history when it comes to transparency regarding injuries. Most of the time, he refuses to acknowledge them at all. Given the seriousness of the injuries to the two defensive starters, it seems unlikely that either of them will be able to play Saturday vs. Penn State, despite his “day-to-day” characterization.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the backups performed pretty well. Rori Blair, after getting pancaked on his first snap, ended up with three tackles and a pair of quarterback hurries. At linebacker, Seun Idowu, who was expected to start but ended up losing his spot to Zeise during the week, ended up getting the majority of the snaps at the Star linebacker spot and ended up with three tackles. Narduzzi was complimentary of the work both reserves did.
“We anticipated getting all of those guys in anyways,” Narduzzi said Monday. “The first day of camp, we felt good with our depth at defensive end. Whether Dewayne (Hendrix) is with us or not next week, Rori Blair has been outstanding. … We anticipated getting him in the game. We feel like they are co-starters anyways. We will be great with either Dewayne or Rori Blair in the game.”
“Seun Idowu was slated to start, but maybe he didn’t have as great a week as I’d like him to have. To be honest with you, he played really well. He did what we thought he’d do. He might have been trying a little too hard going into his first week as a starter, but he played really hard. He played like a starter.”
As the game went on and the second-team defense found the field, the injuries provided an opportunity to players such as Saleem Brightwell, Allen Edwards, James Folston and Jalen Williams. Those players got more mixed reviews.
“(James) Folston wasn’t as clean as I’d like him to be, but I expect to get him in there,” Narduzzi said. “He is so much better than he was a year ago. We’re not afraid to play those guys.”
The Pitt defense will be challenged with yet another mobile quarterback as Penn State’s Trace McSorley, much like Villanova’s Zach Bednarczyk, can not only scramble, but make plays with designed quarterback runs.
“They’ve got quarterback runs and quarterback keepers now,” Narduzzi said. “He’s going to carry the ball and in big games I’d imagine he’s going to carry it even more. When they get down into the red zone, he’s going to be more active as far as running the ball. He’s an active guy and you have to watch him with 11 guys.”
The run defense, as always, will be a priority for the Panthers, and they’ll face one of their stiffest tests all season in Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
“Saquon Barkley is maybe the best tailback in the country,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t look at them all, but he is a great tailback and he is a guy that will be a priority to stop.”
The sophomore came out of nowhere to become a force for the Nittany Lions in 2015. After starting the season fourth on the depth chart, he broke out with a 115-yard performance in Week 2 against Buffalo and cemented his place in Penn State lore with this hurdle over a Buffalo defender:
Barkley dealt with some injuries during the middle of the season, but still finished the year with 1,076 rushing yards, seven touchdowns and a 5.9-yards-per-carry average. In Week 1 against Kent State, he ran for 105 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.
The Panthers run defense was significantly improved in the first year under Narduzzi in 2015, and they plugged up Villanova’s rushing attack to the tune of 37 yards on 13 carries for running back Javon White. It starts with the big man up front, nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s hard to move in there,” Narduzzi said. “He just dish-ragged some people on that line.”
Jarrett and company will be facing a much-maligned Penn State unit that got Christian Hackenberg sacked 39 times in 2015. But Narduzzi said he sees more talent than those numbers show.
“Penn State’s offensive line only gave up one sack last week,” he said. “A year ago they gave up a few more. You’re looking at a much improved offensive line without a question. They can move, and you’ve got to be careful with just trying to get the quarterback because he can escape.”