Pat Narduzzi spoke to the media on Monday and as always, here’s the five big takeaways from what the Pitt head coach had to say as his Panthers prepare to take on Syracuse this Saturday.
Pitt’s last experience with the Orange was a memorable one as Pitt and Syracuse combined to score 137 points in an FBS record for offense.
While Pitt’s victory may have eased the pain of the defensive performance, it’s something that’s stuck in the craw of Narduzzi, who said he’s watched that film about 15 times since. The takeaway that day was that the Panthers corners were picked apart and abused by a multi-faceted Syracuse attack that utilized a combination of a fade route and a zero route to great effect.
This year, Narduzzi feels that his team is in better position to deal with that threat. The first reason is that Orange wideout Amba Etta-Tawo, who had 178 yards and five touchdowns last season, has graduated. The second his the that Narduzzi feels a lot better about his secondary right now.
“They can go after the corners,” he said. “I hope they go after the corners, because I feel good about who those guys are out there right now. I feel a lot better than we did last year at this game.”
That’s a bold statement, but it’s been backed up so far. When the Panthers have allowed big offensive plays this season, more often than not, it’s been plays made against the team’s safeties and linebackers and not the corners.
BREAK OUT THE TAPE
Last year’s tape won’t be the only one that is informative this year, either. The Panthers’ Week 3 loss to Oklahoma State should be pretty informative, as well. Oklahoma State and Syracuse have very similar offenses and it will be interesting to see if the Orange attack the Panthers’ safeties as the Cowboys did or if they go back to what worked in 2016.
“I think to attack us, they’re going to play three and four wideouts, Narduzzi said. “A year ago, empty was their favorite formation. … They did that all last year with their backup quarterback. [Eric] Dungey was out. Dungey is back now.”
In 2017, Dungey has passed for 1,437 yards and seven touchdowns, but has four interceptions already in 212 attempts after throwing seven with 355 drop-backs last year. The Pitt secondary had three interceptions last week and is tied for 19th in the country with six on the season.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Orange attack the Panthers, with their success last season coming against the corners and the Cowboys’ success coming against the safeties.
BACK IN ACTION
If it’s the corners that come under fire, the Panthers might have an advantage this season in the depth department. Starters Avonte Maddox and Dane Jackson have acquitted themselves well and true freshmen backups Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock have had plenty of playing time.
That group will get a shot in the arm by the return of Phillipie Motley, who dressed last week but did not play last week. Motley was one of the team’s top DB performers in the spring and could be a big boost to the secondary’s depth.
“With our depth on defense, we’ll be pretty darn healthy,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll see how [Motley] looks this week. He did a lot of things last week. You add another corner in the mix. It just gives you some guys you can rotate. We were a little short last year and that was part of the problem.”
Having some extra bodies may also help Pitt deal with the tempo of the Syracuse offense.
“If you don’t sub, you’re just going to get gassed and then scheme doesn’t matter,” Narduzzi said. “You’d like to keep your 11 best out there. If it’s three and out, that’s great.”
Pitt seems to have solved its issue at right tackle by permanently moving Alex Bookser to that spot. He played all the way through until garbage time at that spot, with Mike Herndon and Brandon Hodges rotating at right tackle. Narduzzi thought he did enough to deserve that spot going forward.
“Not only running the ball, but protecting the quarterback, too,” Narduzzi said. “He did a good job of protecting Max last week.”
TAKING WHAT’S THERE
I wrote in my film study that the Pitt offense did a good job of taking what was given to them by the Rice defense, regardless of what was in the game plan.
“I think they assumed, ‘Let’s pack the box and make this quarterback throw the ball,’” Narduzzi said. “Guess what, he did. Now, we hadn’t seen it thrown like that before. Max is back. Now we’ve just got to keep him that way.”