When Ball State traveled to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium and won the opening coin toss last Thursday, the Cardinals wanted the football. Ball State wanted to keep the Volunteers’ high-octane offense off the field.
Well, a first play interception gave the ball right back to Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, and he put the Vols up early with a 23-yard touchdown pass on the next play.
“When you’re playing them — Ball State took the ball when they won the coin toss,” Pat Narduzzi said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “They wanted to keep them off the field to start off with. Last year we deferred, and we didn’t start fast, so we’ll see what happens there with the coin toss.”
However, Narduzzi likes to get his defense onto the field early — as evidenced by deferring to the second half of the West Virginia game in Week 1. He also wasn’t happy with the overall performance of his defense against WVU, and Saturday’s test against Tennessee will be a whole different beast.
When Pitt played Tennessee last season, it was after just one game of new head coach Josh Heupel’s offense being implemented in Knoxville — and it was Hooker’s first game playing at Tennessee. Heupel’s offense has been in place for 14 games now, Hooker is a darkhorse Heisman candidate and if anything, that familiarity and chemistry has Tennessee’s offense — which Narduzzi feels is a Top-10 offense in the country — operating at an even faster pace.
The speed of Tennessee’s up-tempo offense, likely somewhere between 12-14 seconds passing between the end of a play and the football being snapped, requires Pitt to be totally prepared. There’s been a heavy emphasis on containing tempo during practice over the last week, with the Rocks scout team attempting to simulate the speed and tempo of Tennessee’s offense.
“I think we have a routine in how we’ve practiced, how we’ve exposed them to a lot of plays in a row,” Narduzzi said. “We had an eight-play, fast-tempo — which you find out who can play eight plays or more. You can’t go 15 play drive, they won’t be ready for Saturday, so we expose them on Tuesday to a lot of plays and then we taper back to the point where today, we’re not doing any tempo. We just wanna save their legs.”
But like Bangally Kamara told Narduzzi after the WVU game, actual game experiences are drastically different from practice situations. Practice can only prepare players so much, but Narduzzi feels pretty good with the preparation and repetition stacked up throughout the week. And the message from the coaching staff is clear.
When a referee’s whistle blows a play dead, Pitt’s defenders are to return home — to their designation alignments — as quickly as possible. Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett, for example, line back up on the hashes before the play call is even in. When Narduzzi watches the tape Sunday, he hopes to see a clinical performance in getting home for all his defensive players.
“You don’t rest until you get back — maybe you don’t get a rest,” Narduzzi said. “Maybe they snap in 14 seconds, maybe it’s third down, and you get a 20 second break, but we’ve practiced getting home is critical.”
However, while defensive hustle and positioning can be perfect, execution matters just as much.
Hooker threw for 2,945 yards last season and 31 touchdowns and rushed for 616 yards and five touchdowns last season, leading a Vols’ offense that scored 39.3 points per game. It’s an offense that returns playmakers in Jabari Small, Cedric Tillman and Jaylin Hyatt — adding Bru McCoy.
“He’s got a great arm,” Narduzzi said Monday. “He’s smart. Like I said, you look at where he is right now compared to where he was two years ago when he was at Virginia Tech, two totally different guys. That’s obviously a tribute — that’s no slam on what Virginia Tech did with him, but he fits into that offense, and his quarterback coach is coaching the heck out of him, and I think he’s really, really sharp.”
Against Pitt last season, Hooker entered for Joe Milton in the second quarter, and he threw for 188 yards and two touchdowns and added 49 yards on the ground. But he had two critical mistakes too.
To open the second half, a Habakkuk Baldonado strip-sack stole the ball away from Hooker. And Tennessee’s final offensive possession — late in the fourth quarter — was halted by Brandon Hill. Hill read Hooker’s the whole way, undercutting a pass and effectively closing the door on a potential Tennessee comeback.
When it comes to setting up Pitt’s safeties with opportunities to drop back and read Hooker this time around, Narduzzi can’t say there’s a sure-fire way, it comes down to what coverage opportunities arise.
“We gotta put them in good coverage,” Narduzzi said. “We’re going to be manned up out there a lot, and if you try to play Cover 3 against these guys, it’s hard because to have a guy in the middle of the field against these guys, he’s doing nothing. I think everybody can play middle of the field because nothing comes to you.”
If the middle of the field is open though, with Pitt forced to cover the split wide receivers, it opens the potential for Tennessee to use pop passes as it did last season. With a tight end lined up in the backfield, a quarterback fakes a handoff and fires a quick pass to the tight end that worked himself into the space between the linebackers and safeties.
It allowed Tennessee to gash Pitt’s defense last season, and with Narduzzi and the coaching staff aware of the threat, it was an emphasis during practice over the last week.
“We worked on it a lot,” Narduzzi said. “When they did hit that, we were in a zone pressure, and it’s those splits that are so wide, that we usually don’t have that problem. But when your safeties are lined up, and you’re trying to disguise, and they’re in these wide splits, it’s just a long way for us to go. We’ve gotta be careful when they put that tight end on the line of scrimmage, we know what we’ve got. So, we’ve got some different things to help us there, I think.”
With Tennessee coming to town Saturday, it provides Pitt’s defense with an immediate chance to prove last Thursday’s showing against WVU was a blip on the radar. It’s likely the toughest offense Pitt’s defense will face all season, and with the tempo and spread style of offense Tennessee poses, it will be a tough test.
Narduzzi expects that Tennessee could run as many as 100 offensive snaps Saturday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium, and it will be up to Pitt’s improved defensive effort across all phases to slow down Hooker and the Vols.