Opponent outlook: Pat Narduzzi brought new attitude to Pitt

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

After an impressive start that landed the University of Pittsburgh in college football's Top 25, a loss to North Carolina last week has thrown a monkey wrench into the Panthers' season.

That makes Saturday's game with Notre Dame at Heinz Field that much more important for Pitt.

Sam Werner, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pitt football beat writer, takes a look at the significance of the matinee meeting.

ND Insider: What defines what first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi (former Michigan State defensive coordinator) has brought to the Pitt program? 

Sam Werner: Basically, all the things you saw from Pat Narduzzi and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. He has brought a toughness and mental edge that Pitt has really lacked in recent years. There are some schematic things, too, of course. The defense appears to be much improved, adapting to Narduzzi's simplified scheme (though the last few games, yielding 74 points in the last three, might give some pause to all the praise). The players seem to have more confidence in the scheme they're running this year, especially on defense.

In a bigger picture sense, though, Narduzzi seems to have brought a new mentality to the program. Pitt is 5-2 in one-possession games this season after going 1-5 in such games last year. They had big-time, clutch drives to win games against Georgia Tech and Syracuse over the last few weeks and, even in last week's loss to North Carolina, never folded up shop like many previous teams would have. This team isn't quite there yet (and last week's loss to the Tar Heels kind of showed that) but early returns — from both a tangible and intangible perspective — are very encouraging for the Narduzzi era at Pitt.

NDI: How has last week's 26-19 loss to North Carolina impacted the trajectory of the season?

Werner: Mostly, it pumped the brakes on the somewhat unbridled optimism that followed Pitt's 6-1 start and first ranking since 2010. At that point, a lot of people were already having dreams of a matchup against Clemson in the ACC title game, and I think the loss was a bit of a reality check that this team still has some work to do before it reaches that level. Still, I think the general sense coming away from the game was still pretty positive. North Carolina's a good team that could be ranked much higher if not for a weird loss to South Carolina in week one. Like I said earlier, it was also a positive sign that the Panthers didn't quit and lose by a few touchdowns (like some previous teams probably would have). Before the season, I think eight wins would have been a pretty successful season. You throw in (running back) James Conner's injury, and eight wins is looking even better. That's still on the table.

NDI: Where are Pitt's biggest areas of concern?

Werner: Pitt is still struggling to figure out its offensive identity without James Conner in the backfield. The running backs have been good in spurts (mostly redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison) but haven't given anywhere near the consistent production that Conner would have. Against North Carolina, for example, Pitt really couldn't control the tempo of the game the way it wanted to because it couldn't get consistent yards on the ground. Quarterback Nate Peterman has been fine and efficient, but he also doesn't really have the game-breaking ability of, say, (North Carolina quarterback) Marquise Williams, to make something out of nothing when his team needs a play. Basically, if the Panthers' offense gets rolling on the ground, it's hard to stop — ask Georgia Tech and Syracuse. But that hasn't always been the case this season. When things get stagnant, Pitt has really struggled finding what it needs to create a spark and get things moving.

NDI: What kinds of problems will receiver Tyler Boyd (63 receptions, 578 yards, 4 TDs) give to a struggling Notre Dame secondary?

Werner: That's a really good question, and one I'm not quite sure I have the answer to.

When it comes to pure raw talent, Boyd is one of the best receivers in college football. He has unbelievable body control and some of the best hands you'll see. Even some of the "routine" catches he makes in traffic require an amazing amount of concentration and strength to bring it. He has been facing a lot of double and triple teams this year, so his numbers are even more impressive when you factor in that defenses are keying on him on just about every play, and Pitt really hasn't done a lot to develop secondary receiver options.

That being said, though, his numbers this year look a bit off, and that's reflected by what you have seen on the field. Basically, for whatever reason, Boyd doesn't have the same big-play ability we've seen in years past. It seems partially due to the quarterback situation (deep balls aren't really Nate Peterman's strong suit) but is mostly thanks to some of the play calling. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney wants to get the ball in Boyd's hands as much as possible, but that has mostly involved a lot of short screens and quick passes that keep Boyd close to the line of scrimmage. That makes sense, he's your best offensive player, but it takes away a pretty lethal element of his game, too — the deep ball. Pitt, really, has shown very little ability (or even interest) in stretching the field deep so far this season.

NDI: Where will Pitt have trouble matching up with Notre Dame?

Werner: Realistically, probably across the board, with the exception of Boyd vs. KeiVarae Russell (not a knock on Russell, just that Boyd can go up against any corner in the country). The Pitt secondary has some good players, particularly cornerback Avonte Maddox, but also has a tendency to get beat deep. That's not a good sign going up against Will Fuller.

The matchup I'm most interested to see, though, will be Pitt's defensive front against Notre Dame's offensive line. In the run game, it looks like Temple and Clemson did a good job bottling up C.J. Prosise, and that gave them a chance to win against the Irish. If Notre Dame can beat Pitt consistently on the ground, I think that's going to make for a long day for the Panthers.

The other side of that matchup, too, is in the passing game. After five games of generating a lot of quarterback pressure, the Panthers really haven't gotten much in the last three weeks. If DeShone Kizer has as much time to throw as Marquise Williams did last week, he should be able to pick the Panthers apart. Really, Pitt will have to generate some pressure and probably force a turnover or two to keep it a close game late.

Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi during an NCAA college football game between Pittsburgh and Virginia, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)