PITTSBURGH — There have been plenty of problems with Pat Narduzzi’s tenure as Pitt’s head coach.
There’s been a complete and total inability to win all of the games on their schedule that they should win, generally poor offensive coordinator hires, a lack of cogent in game decision making strategy. I could go on and on. But while none of those things have been positives for Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt, none of them were the reasons he was hired at Pitt, either.
Narduzzi was hired because he was an elite defensive coordinator at Michigan State, and even though there have been two men under him that have held the title of defensive coordinator at Pitt, the defense that Narduzzi brought with him from East Lansing is the one the Panthers play to this day.
The biggest problem with Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt, is that defense, the one that made Narduzzi famous at MSU and got him the Pitt job, hasn’t worked.
I’ve covered this in this space before, but the concept of Pitt’s defense is that it will stop the run, pressure the quarterback and give the cornerbacks a chance to win with physicality on the outside.
If the outside corners get beat deep, and the pass rush doesn’t get home, most college quarterbacks don’t complete deep passes with enough regularity to make Pitt really pay for that trade-off.
For Narduzzi at Michigan State, it mostly worked. But the combination of changes in college offenses and the move to the more pass-happy ACC has made it significantly less effective with the Panthers.
On Saturday, Western Michigan torched Pitt for 44 points and 517 yards. But the Broncos weren’t the first.
In the time that Narduzzi has been at Pitt, an average defensive performance holds the opposition under 400 yards. A poor defensive performance, at about the 25th percentile of results, allows more than 430 yards.
In six years and three games, 31 opponents have topped the 400-yard mark against Pitt’s defense, and the Saturday was the seventh time a non-Power Five team did it, joining Eastern Michigan (2019), Navy (2015), UCF (2019 and 2018) and Youngstown State (2017 and 2015). Outside of UCF, that’s not exactly a who’s who of lower-level college football.
It was also the 12th time Pitt’s defense gave up over 500 yards under Narduzzi, averaging just under twice a season.
While there are some world-beating offenses in that realm, such as Clemson and Oklahoma State twice each, Pitt has given up more than 500 yards to Navy in 2015, a 4-8 Syracuse team in both 2016 and 2017, Duke in 2018. Others have been close to that mark. In 2018, 2-9 North Carolina put up 486. In 2017, 5-6 Georgia Tech raced for 484.
Essentially, at least one a year, Narduzzi’s defense gets pasted by a mediocre offense.
It isn’t a talent problem. Pitt has had nine defensive players drafted into the NFL since Narduzzi arrived, with at least four of them on the team every year until this one. Haba Baldonado, Calijah Kancey and company will likely keep that going.
This might not be the most talented defense Narduzzi has had, but it’s talented enough. Pitt didn’t line up against the Broncos with a talent deficit at any single position on the field on Saturday. But even the 2020 defense, with all those players headed to the NFL, still got gashed, and not just by Clemson and Notre Dame, but by Virginia Tech, as well.
Of course, this isn’t a new problem, either. This is something that has been going for a while now, and there has been no substantive adjustment to the way Pitt does business. Don’t believe me? Ask Western Michigan coach Tim Lester, who was offensive coordinator at Syracuse way back in 2015.
“I’ve watched that game three hundred times this week and where they’re going to come and how they’re going to be and what variety of matchups we’re going to need to keep the safety off balance,” Lester said.
Later he said of his offense, “they knew exactly what they were going to get.”
Pitt has been playing basically the same scheme with some minor variations for over six years now. It’s pretty clear that it isn’t working. They lost because Narduzzi and his defensive staff got out-coached, and he admitted as much.
“It starts with the coaches,” Narduzzi said. “We obviously didn’t do — we got out-coached today, and we’ve got to do a better job.”
The first step solving a problem is recognizing there is one.
There are more things to take away from that game. Kenny Pickett remains tough as nails and the best Pitt quarterback in 30 years. Jordan Addison, Jared Wayne and Lucas Krull all have star potential on offense. Pitt’s offense scored more than 40 points in three straight games to start the season for the first time ever. Ever! But it’s hard to feel good about any of that when the defense can’t get a stop when it needs to against Western Michigan.