Nick Patti’s been here before. Not El Paso. In the position to lead Pitt to a bowl win.
Pat Narduzzi named him as the starter in the buildup to last season’s Peach Bowl, taking over Kenny Pickett’s offense against Michigan State and receiving a level of support that made a New Year’s Six Bowl win feel more than possible.
He was prepared. He was ready. He led a scoring drive. And he left with a broken collarbone. Pitt would lose to Michigan State 31-21 with Davis Beville under center.
It wasn’t the storybook end to the season that Pitt wanted, and it certainly wasn’t what Patti envisioned when he prepared for his first start since the 2019 season. With another chance, a chance at a true storybook ending, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. is once again preaching preparation.
“We’ve had great preparation,” Cignetti said Tuesday in El Paso. “Coach Narduzzi put together a great schedule, prior to Christmas we got a lot of good work in and the work we’re getting here in El Paso is outstanding. Today will be our second day. And the players have done a great job.”
While the offense hasn’t received the same number of opt-outs that the defense has, it will still be a very different offense that takes the field against UCLA on Friday.
Kedon Slovis and Israel Abanikanda will not be playing. Patti and Rodney Hammond Jr. will. Hammond made an impact this season though, starting a few games and fueling Pitt’s offense in a win against West Virginia to open the season.
Patti, after losing the quarterback competition to Slovis in the offseason, made just two appearances this season. And he only threw passes in one game, a one-legged showing against Tennessee in relief of an injured Slovis. His last pass attempt came nearly four months ago — an incomplete pass in overtime against Tennessee.
He completed 9-of-20 pass attempts for 79 yards and a touchdown this season, all of which came in the second half against Tennessee, but Cignetti isn’t worried about any level of rust. He knows — as does Narduzzi — that Patti is a gamer.
“Nick’s a veteran; he’s been at Pitt for a long time,” Cignetti said Tuesday in El Paso. “He’s a winner, he’s a leader, his teammates respect him, his teammates believe in him. I know I’m very excited to have coached him the last couple of weeks as the starting quarterback. We’re excited to see Nick go out there and lead us.”
Patti wasn’t just handed the starting job after Slovis entered the transfer portal on Dec. 5, committing to BYU on Christmas Eve. He had to beat out Nate Yarnell, who made his first college start against Western Michigan in September, a game that Patti missed due to his ankle injury.
Narduzzi named Patti as Pitt’s ‘likely’ starter Monday, which means he is starting against UCLA. It is his first start since the Peach Bowl against Michigan State last December, and as a veteran on the offense, his goal is to be a steady hand.
“This is my fifth year,” Patti said after Pitt’s practice Monday. “I think just being here for so long and seeing the new guys come in and now I’m the older guy, I try to come out with a positive mindset every day. A positive attitude, come out with confidence, and I guess the guys just rally around that. I’m gonna try to keep it going for the game.”
Cignetti has a great deal of belief in Patti, as do Hammond and Jared Wayne. As Cignetti said, Patti has worked with Hammond, Wayne, Gavin Bartholomew and the entire offense all season — and longer in most cases — despite his status as the backup.
It’s Cignetti and the coaching staff’s job to coach, to be the teachers, and all he asks is that his players prepare to perform. Through a couple of weeks of practice, and two practices in El Paso, he’s been pleased by the level of preparation from his offense.
That preparation will be important in terms of finding offensive cohesion and evaluating UCLA on film — as the Bruins have had very, very opt-outs in the lead up to the Sun Bowl.
While UCLA’s defense, which has allowed 28.3 points per game and 399.8 yards per game this season, isn’t exactly a top unit in the country, it’s a unit that is able to get after the quarterback and force turnovers.
And Cignetti has history with UCLA defensive coordinator Bill McGovern. The pair coached together with the New York Giants (as the quarterbacks coach and linebackers coach, respectively), and Cignetti considers McGovern a good friend.
“This one is a little close to my heart because their defensive coordinator Billy McGovern is a good friend of mine,” Cignetti said. “He’s a great coach, coached with him in the National Football League and you see it show up on tape.
“Multiple front, multiple coverages, multiple pressures. They do a great job coaching, they’re talented, the defensive line is athletic, the linebackers can run and the secondary does a really good job covering.”
McGovern is back coaching the UCLA defense for the first time in five games, after missing time with an undisclosed health concern.
Washington transfer Laiatu Latu — despite serving as a reserve end all season — led UCLA with 11 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and a recovery. Darius Muasau, JonJon Vaughns and Jaylin Davies all recorded two interceptions each this season.
In three losses this season, the UCLA defense allowed 45 points to Oregon, 34 points to Arizona and 48 points to USC. Pitt’s offense reached the 40-point plateau three times this season — but now it will have to come with Patti under center.
Hammond, who will look to take the next step forward in his own progression without Abanikanda, will start at running back against UCLA.
The trio of Wayne, Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means is available for Patti, as is Bartholomew, and the offensive line will receive its first potential look at next season’s iteration.
Branson Taylor and Matt Goncalves will bookend the line, and there’s the potential for Ryan Baer, Terrence Moore and Ryan Jacoby may receive a few snaps based on the flow of the game.
The Sun Bowl kicks off Friday at 2 p.m. EST, and the game will be broadcast on CBS.