PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi is the kind of coach that enjoys a good defensive challenge from time to time.
But that doesn’t exactly mean that he’s looking forward to Pitt’s date with No. 9 Oklahoma State on Saturday. The Cowboys, with an attack led by quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington, have had one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country over the last few years.
Last season, they finished with an average of 38.6 points per game and 495 yards per game, both in the Top 20 in the country.
“They’re very, very talented,” Narduzzi said Monday. “We finished meetings, which we usually don’t, on Sunday night just really splitting up individually and going to watch Oklahoma State tape just for a little bit.”
Of course, Pitt and Panthers fans don’t need any statistical evidence to prove how good the Oklahoma State offense can be. The Cowboys showed it to them last year by scoring 45 points in a back-and-forth offensive battle last season in Stillwater, Okla.
“I don’t feel good when I look at James Washington out there and Mason Rudolph,” Narduzzi said. “You don’t feel any better because I don’t care who they play, just go put on Oklahoma State. It’s big explosive passes and runs for that matter because as soon as you start playing cover two and trying to put two over (Washington), it’s out the gate going 98 (up the middle), and that’s not good, either. So, it’s pick your poison.”
The Cowboys don’t just have a talented set of offensive skill position players, either. Under head coach and offensive guru Mike Gundy, they play an up-tempo offensive style that can put defenses in a bind before they even have to accomplish the hard part of covering guys like Washington down the field.
D IN A BETTER PLACE
But despite all of that, Narduzzi feels that his defense is in a better place that it was a year ago when it comes to its chances of stopping the Cowboys.
“I do feel better about the matchup this year than I did a year ago,” he said. “Are we going to leave that guy (that has to cover Washington) on an island all day, like we did a year ago? No.”
Narduzzi has been particularly pleased with the growth of depth in the secondary. He expects to see more out of Jazzee Stocker and Damarri Mathis this week as Pitt rotates more on defense to deal with the number of wide receivers and the temp of the Oklahoma State offense. But he’s also pleased that Pitt seems to be trending well in shutting down top receiving threats.
“We didn’t have problems locking down No. 1 receivers Saturday,” he said.
Pitt allowed just six catches for 79 yards against Penn State’s wide receivers.
HELP ON THE WAY
That unit is also getting some pretty talented players back in the mix, as redshirt freshman Therran Coleman and sophomore Damar Hamlin, both of whom have been sidelined with injuries thus far this season, are on the depth chart and could make an impact on Saturday.
“They’re getting closer, and they’re on the depth chart,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll find out this week. (Hamlin is) getting closer. That’s why he was dressed (last week) … Little by little, we’re getting there.”
Narduzzi said that Mathis will likely still be the first cornerback off the bench. Hamlin could play a number of roles, spelling Dennis Briggs at strong safety, taking over for Jazzee Stocker as the extra defensive back in the “Delta” package, or getting some reps behind Avonte Maddox as a boundary corner.
ADDRESSING THE LINE
I wrote in my film study this week that perhaps an underrated portion of the blame for Pitt’s lackluster start to the season on offense should be borne by the linemen. It was generally though that unit would still be a strength of the team, even with losing Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson to graduation.
Alex Bookser and Alex Officer started for Pitt in 2016 while Brandon Hodges was starting for Texas. Jaryd Jones-Smith started some games for the Panthers in 2014 before his knee injury.
But that hasn’t been the case. Hodges left the Penn State game in the first half with an injury. Jones-Smith and Officer each allowed sacks and had illegal procedure penalties. Through two games, Max Browne has been sacked 6 times. Nate Peterman was only sacked 10 times all of last season. It’s definitely an area where Pitt is looking for improvement.
“I am concerned about protection,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll do some things protection-wise to help protect him better. We’ve given up too many sacks, period. So, something has gotta change there.”
After being listed as co-starters last week, Hodges is now listed as the backup to Bookser at right guard. Pitt does not disclose injuries for non-conference games.
“I don’t see (the rotation) changing a whole bunch,” Narduzzi said. “You might see some slight changes here and there.”
Something that I left out of that piece was the fact the Pitt is also missing fullback George Aston, who unlike graduates, was expected to be starting for Pitt this year. Aston had 10 touchdowns last year, proving himself as a short-yardage and goal-line threat that Pitt could definitely use.
“You know, you miss George everywhere, not just in the red zone,” Narduzzi said. “We got opportunities in the red zone to make some plays and we didn’t. … They got an 8-yard drive for a touchdown, we got 15 plays and get three. We’re executing a lot of plays really well up front. We were more explosive last week than we were against Youngstown State, so what’s that tell you. So we got a little bit better, and we had a chance to have some more.”
Aston was rumored to be out for the season when he hurt his ankle in practice back in August, something that Narduzzi loudly denied. Aston was still in a boot for Pitt’s win over Youngstown State in Week 1, but is rehabbing quickly and Narduzzi called him “questionable” for this Saturday.