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Vukovcan: If Pitt Can Beat Penn State, 6-0 is Realistic

Vukovcan: If Pitt Can Beat Penn State, 6-0 is Realistic

My lord, the reaction I received last week when I predicted that Pat Narduzzi’s team would start the season 6-0.

You would’ve thought that I was saying that Pitt would beat Alabama in the National Championship game.

I expected to get laughed at and ridiculed from the fan base on the other side of the state. How dare anyone believe that a school like Pitt can beat the almighty Penn State (although it just happened two years ago)?

Ryan Lewis September 10, 2016 (Photo credit: David Hague)

What surprised me most was the volume of Pitt fans that thought I should be locked up and put in a padded room for making such a prediction.

Hey, I realize Pitt hasn’t started a season 6-0 since 1982 and haven’t even started 4-0 since 2000 under Walt Harris.

I get all that but you know what? That doesn’t matter. I stand by that “insane” prediction and here’s why.

KENNY PICKETT

Not since probably 2004 and Tyler Palko has Pitt had an above average/impact type quarterback. With all due respect to quarterbacks since then, no one has brought the kind of skill level and excitement that Kenny Pickett will bring into this season.

Despite only having started one college game, Pickett has the “it” factor. Since the start of camp, it’s been impossible to not have someone; whether it’s a coach, player, or media member, not sing his praises. He created buzz and became an instant fan favorite talking about how 5-7 isn’t acceptable anymore and the goal is double-digit wins.

Only confident, talented players make a statement and put a bullseye on themselves like Pickett did.

A team that’s looking to be great needs to have a great quarterback and I believe that’s what Pickett is bound to be.

Kenny Pickett (8) dives in for the touchdown November 24, 2017 — DAVID HAGUE/PSN

PANTHER DEFENSE

Everyone is aware of the defensive reputation that Pat Narduzzi brought with him from Michigan State where he was considered one of the best defensive minds in the country.

I guess people that are quick to criticize expected him to bring his defensive talent from East Lansing to Heinz Field on Saturdays. No, the Pitt defense hasn’t played well enough on most Saturdays to give the team a chance to win. However, Narduzzi can be absolved from some of the blame.

The biggest “excuse” that I’ll list is that Narduzzi and his coaches weren’t coaching their players and still had large numbers of Todd Graham and Paul Chryst recruits. That may sound like a lazy reason for non-success but it’s a factor.

For the first time since becoming head coach, the Pitt starting defense will largely consist of Narduzzi’s recruits.

Rashad Weaver, Dewayne Hendrix, Saleem Brightwell, Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts, Jaylen Twyman, Damar Hamlin, Paris Ford, Chase Pine, Therran Coleman, Dane Jackson, Jason Pinnock, John Morgan and Wendell Davis are guys brought in by Narduzzi and are expected to have a big impact.

Paris Ford (12) carries the ball during the annual NCAA football spring Blue Gold game, Saturday, April 14, 2018 — DAVID HAGUE

Another factor is the depth that Pitt finally has on defense. In years past, they’ve had talented players on defense but if one of those impact defenders was injured or suspended, the team didn’t have the quality depth to replace them.

That’s not the case this year and the Panthers won’t be crippled when someone is missing from the lineup.

Players like Morgan, Davis, Pine, Damarri Mathis, Marquis Williams, Patrick Jones, Anthony McKee and Cam Bright are young players that are waiting in the wings waiting for their opportunity.

While some people refer to Narduzzi as overrated and like to pick out bad defensive numbers, I’ll throw this out as a sign that the young talent was starting to pick up his system and were improving.

PITT 2017 DEFENSE

First four games:
205.5 rushing yards/game
273.8 passing yards/game
479.3 totals yards/game
37.0 points per game

Middle four games:
128.8 rushing yards/game
267.0 passing yards/game
395.8 total yards/game
22.3 points per game

Last four games:
100.0 rushing yards/game
221.8 passing yards/game
321.8 total yards/game
20.5 points per game

LOOK AT THE FIRST SIX OPPONENTS

I understand predicting a 6-0 start for a program that finished last year 5-7 doesn’t sound smart but I’ll repeat: 2017 has nothing to do with what happens this year.

Aside from 10th-ranked Penn State, which of the other five opponents will Pitt be big underdogs against?

Albany is a team that Pitt will beat, then comes Penn State and Pitt will come in as two touchdown underdogs but I’d take the points and run. I get it, James Franklin has the Penn State program back to a high level and is bringing in tons of high level recruits. However, they lost a lot of talent to the NFL and some key coaches as well.

Trace McSorley has been a good quarterback but he’s also had the luxury of playing with guys like Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton and played under a great offensive coordinator in Joe Moorhead. The Penn State defense has been good, but a bunch of starters from last year won’t be returning.

Does Penn State have a talented roster? Yes but that talent is young and doesn’t have many miles on it. Are we to expect them to instantly put things together in Week 2, on the road, in prime-time on national television? I’m betting no.

After Penn State, Pitt takes on Georgia Tech at home, North Carolina on the road, Central Florida on the road and Syracuse at home.

In my opinion, the biggest test will be Central Florida but I’d be hesitant in buying stock in them. Are they legit or a program that played in a mediocre conference and had a magical season in 2017. Georgia Tech and Syracuse are at home and North Carolina will be dealing with player suspensions and a roster that’s picked to finish at the bottom of the Coastal.

By no means am I saying this will be easy but at the same time they’re not playing USC, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Washington.

Over recent years, Pitt football has given their fan base more reasons to scream than to celebrate, so they’re obviously hesitant to ever be optimistic or feel too good about things.

Will this year be the year things change for Narduzzi and the direction of Pitt football?

I believe the answer to that is a resounding yes: Pitt will begin the season 6-0, their best start since 1982.

(And if I’m wrong, please don’t remind me).

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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