With most of their preseason goals out of reach, the Pitt Panthers will attempt to play a role they didn’t necessarily envision for themselves this season: spoiler.
But with some close losses against a touch schedule, that’s where the Panthers find themselves facing a visit to No. 2 Clemson on Saturday. They’ve played well enough against top competition to suggest that a win is possible, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that it isn’t likely, and that’s supported by a +20.5 line for Pitt in Las Vegas.
So a puncher’s chance at an upset is what the Panthers have to look forward to and that’s what the coaching staff is selling to the players this week.
“‘If you play lights out, you can beat anybody. That’s a fact,’ That’s what we sell,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said in his weekly press conference Monday, but he rejected comparisons to similar wins in Pitt’s past. “It’s not what happened back in 1976 or 1978 or 2009. It’s what happens this Saturday.”
The last time Pitt visited such a highly rated opponent was 2009, when Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers upset West Virginia, 13-9, in Morgantown, crushing the Mountaineers’ title hopes. While the Tigers are obviously not the same kind of rival as West Virginia, they chance to upset the postseason apple cart is just as large.
The 9-0 Tigers are currently projected to be one of the four teams selected to the College Football Playoff and lead Louisville by a game in the Atlantic Division. A loss at this point could throw the ACC’s playoff potential up in the air, with the Tigers going from a lock to a maybe and Louisville’s chances as one-loss non-division winner inching up.
While the Panthers don’t have a need to play out every scenario, they chance to be a big part of the big picture hasn’t been lost.
“I think anytime you get to play one of the top teams in the country, you get to go in and play the spoiler and make something happen on national TV, that’s what players play for and I think that’s what coaches coach for. That’s what you want,” Narduzzi said. “I would hope we’re going to get the best ball out of our guys.”
The Tigers are just the latest high-quality opponent for the Panthers, whose 2016 slate represents a big step up from where they’ve been recently. Whether or not that’s the cause for the downturn in the wins column is up for debate, but Pitt is currently ranked No. 28 in the country in strength of schedule, and that’s before playing Clemson.
“I know preseason you guys talked a lot about the schedule we have,” Narduzzi said. “With Clemson next on the schedule here, our kids get the opportunity to go on the road, in a hostile environment, against a really, really good Clemson team that’s ranked two or three in the country.”
THE ‘OR’S’ HAVE IT
Pitt’s defensive depth chart is littered with ‘or’ designations. That’s one part a recognition of the batter state of the defense injury-wise and also a recognition of the lack of execution that’s plagued the team all season at some spots.
“We’re competing every week,” Narduzzi said. “There’s some guys banged up and there’s some guys that have to practice well to continue to keep their position. It’s not to mess with [the media]. It’s just because it’s what it is now at this point. We’re going to find out who practices best. It depends on how healthy a guy is.”
Tyrique Jarrett didn’t finish the game against Miami at nose tackle, leaving the game with an ankle injury and appearing on crutches in the second half. It’s a huge loss in the middle of Pitt’s defensive line.
Junior Jeremiah Taleni got the first crack at replacing him, and Narduzzi thought he did well enough to deserve another look, assuming Jarrett can’t go Saturday.
“Jeremiah Taleni did a heck of a job,” Narduzzi said. “He played with great leverage. He’s got a chance to start next week. He penetrated. He got a hurry or at least a quarterback on the pass [rush], which we haven’t gotten a lot of on the inside. I really liked the way he played, leverage-wise.”
Narduzzi admitted that even though Taleni played well, there’s going to be a difference when you give up 30 pounds at the nose tackle spot.
“We’ll make some little adjustments,” Narduzzi said. “Tyrique’s been a beast in there. He’s also been worn down. It’s been a long season for him. I really don’t feel bad about those guys going in there. Taleni, he can play against anybody. … Jeremiah’s come a long way since preseason camp.”
With the team’s goals out of reach for the season, many fans have already taken an eye towards evaluating talent for next season, and Narduzzi played along Monday, talking about the play of three of his freshman defenders.
On defensive tackle Amir Watts:
“He popped out of his gap a couple times like freshmen do. When you get doubled, don’t spin out of it. … That’s a freshman mistake. That’s why he needs to get reps and continue to play.”
On outside linebacker Saleem Brightwell:
“We want to get him in there. We think he has a lot of ability. We’ve been wanting to get him in there. It depends on the game plan and what someone’s doing offensively. We know there’s some puppy mistakes he’ll make being a redshirt freshman. We try to put guys in based on what they can do and what they do well. Miami was a good team for him to play against and be in the right spot most of the time. In a year, he’ll be totally different. He’ll be able to play every game, I think. But he’s still learning.”
On cornerback Damar Hamlin:
“I think as a true freshman, it bought he played pretty good. He could play with better technique, as every one of our players could on offense, defense and special teams. As a true freshman going in there against skilled receivers like [Stacy] Coley and [Ahmmon] Richards, you can’t be disappointed. He stepped up and played with a little bit of an attitude, too.”
TIDBITS and KUDOS
Pitt and Clemson will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and be broadcast nationally on ABC. Pitt’s game against Duke on Nov. 19 will kick off at 3 p.m. at Heinz Field and will be broadcast on Root Sports Pittsburgh.
Kick returner Quadree Henderson was named the ACC’s Specialist of the Week for the third time this season. He leads the country with three kickoff return touchdowns, kick return average (33.8 yards) and is second in combined kick return yards with 872.