PITTSBURGH — Pitt spent this first three years and four games of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure as head coach of the team playing a base 4-3 defense.
It has been one of the central tenets of Narduzzi’s tenure. It’s a defense he brought with him from Michigan State, where it earned him a Broyles Award and finished in the top 10 in the country in yards allowed four consecutive seasons.
It lasted through a pair of defensive coordinators, with Josh Conklin giving way to Randy Bates before the beginning of the 2018 season.
And it reigned mostly un-interrupted. Narduzzi brought with him Pitt’s 3-3-5 “Delta” heavy nickel that uses three safeties. The Panthers play that almost exclusively on third downs. Last season, Conklin implemented a 4-2-5 nickel for the game at Syracuse.
It seemed to catch the Orange off guard, and perhaps more importantly, did not get gashed on the ground, as Narduzzi frequently professed would happen if he played more defensive backs on a more-regular basis.
But for whatever reason, the nickel was mostly put back on the shelf after that game. In 2018, it seemed to have been scrapped entirely. Pitt didn’t install the defense in training camp. Therran Coleman, who had played nickel corner in 2017, bounced back and forth between corner and safety.
Last Tuesday, all of that changed. With UCF’s high-powered offense on the horizon, Narduzzi finally relented and made the switch to a 4-2-5 base defense against the Knights.
Despite his team giving up 45 points and over 500 yards of offense, Narduzzi thought the experiment went well.
“You know, I think it went good, to be honest with you,” he said. “Jason Pinnock had a heck of a football game out there, matching up on the inside slot receiver. Yeah, I think he played a heck of a game, and that’s kind of what we were waiting for from him. I know he was banged up earlier in the year, but he needed that.”
Pinnock, a sophomore, has played a good bit as a reserve over the last season and a half, but Saturday against the Knights was his most extensive action. He’s been stuck behind senior starter Phillipie Motley and battling it out with fellow second-year man Paris Ford for those snaps.
He was ready for the opportunity, but for it to come as a nickel back was a surprise.
“It was put on me last week,” Pinnock said. “We installed nickel last year and I did a little there with Therran Coleman and we really liked it against UCF. I took the role on middle of practice.”
With the Syracuse Orange looming once again, it reasons that Pitt will again want to use the nickel again heavily. The Orange and Knights have similar offenses.
“Spread or RPO, that’s why we like the nickel,” Pinnock said. “I’m ready to take on whatever role I’m put out in.”
Of course, this time, the different defense won’t be taking Dino Babers and his staff by surprise.
“Obviously we’re going to have to do some different things this week with the same stuff,” Narduzzi said.
The good news is that Pitt calls and coverages don’t really change all that much when Pinnock, Marquis Williams or another corner — Damarri Mathis practiced there Tuesday — replaces the money linebacker.
“There’s a lot of carryover from our base to what you call a nickel package,” he said.
After refusing to use the nickel for most of his first three season, it seems that Narduzzi has finally embraced the idea of matching personnel with offenses. For so long, Pitt’s defense, particularly the safeties and linebackers, has been hampered by playing uphill against athletic mismatches.
Now, we’ll get to see what they can do when presented with a more level playing field.