Penn State heads to Pitt on Sept. 8, and the team they face will be much different thank the one they saw a season ago in Happy Valley. This will be the third installment in the four game series with the Panthers as the rivalry nears another hiatus.
Pitt faced a rebuilding year heading into 2017, and that is exactly what they got. Penn State won 33-14 in a game that never felt terribly close, but maybe not as satisfying as some Nittany Lions fans expected. As usual, Pitt lost their fair share of brutal games that got masked by a late win over second ranked Miami. As 2018 approaches, can the Panthers build on their late season surge, or will they trip all over themselves like they seemingly have done for years?
Pitt at a Glance
|Head Coach||Pat Narduzzi (4th Season Season; 21-17)|
|2017 Record||5-7, 3-5 (Tie-4th ACC Coastal)|
|Biggest Losses||OT Brian O’Neill, WR/KR Quadree Henderson, CB Avonte Maddox, S Jordan Whitehead|
|Biggest Returnees||QB Kenny Pickett, RB Darrin Hall, G Alex Bookser, CB Dane Jackson, S Damar Hamlin, DE Rashad Wheeler, DT Ami Watts|
|Summary||Pitt took a step back in 2017, but can they return to the post season in Narduzzi's fourth year?|
|Matchup With PSU||Penn State heads to Heinz Field under the lights as Pitt looks to set the tone for a rebound season and avenge the 33-14 loss from a year ago|
Pitt went into 2017 looking to replace several key players on an offense that had averaged 40.9 points per game a year earlier, and did not have much luck, dropping all the way down to 23.9. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will be looking for much more consistency in his second year running the Panthers offense. That will start under center. Max Browne started the year at quarterback before turning to Ben DiNucci. After DiNucci suffered an injury vs. Syracuse, freshman Kenny Pickett had his redshirt burned for the final play of the game. Picket appeared in three more games after that, starting only one. That one, however, was a big one, as he led the Panthers upset of then No. 2 Miami in Heinz Field to close out the season. Pickett accounted for all three Panthers touchdowns on the day (two rushing, one passing). There is no doubting he provided a much needed spark a year ago, and is one reason for optimism in 2018.
The Panthers return their two top backs from 2017 in Darrin Hall, who ran for 486 yards over his final three games, and senior Qadree Ollison. The offensive line is projected as a strength, will need to find a way to replace three starters from a year ago. Senior tackle Alex Bookser, a one time Penn State target, will lead the group.
The Panthers will need to replace Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson at receiver. Weah, now with the Houston Texans, was Pitt's most productive pass catcher one year ago. They will look to senior Rafael Araujo-Lopes and a trio of juniors to replace that lost production. Tre Tipton who missed last season with a knee injury along with Maurice Ffrench and former Penn State verbal commit Aaron Mathews are the names to know.
Pat Narduzzi’s calling card is defense, but as he enters his fourth season the pressure is on after finishing 101st nationally in 2017 in total defense. Like the offense, the defense improved as the season went on, but now the question remains if they can sustain that.
Up front, Pitt brings back plenty of talent, highlighted defensive tackle Amir Watts and defensive end in Rashard Weaver. But there is experience to go around as they relied heavily on underclassmen one year ago. At linebacker, Oluwaseun Idowu returns along with Elijah Zeise and Saleem Brightwell. Quintin Wirginis, who missed all of last year with a hamstring injury has been the spring standout in the middle. That being said, this is a group that finished 91st in the country in run defense last year despite marked improvement over the second half of the season.
If the front seven can’t get to the quarterback, Pitt’s secondary, ,which finished 83rd in the country last year defending the pass, will again be tested. The lowlight came early on when high flying Oklahoma State hung 49 points on the Panthers in just the first half. Pitt lost Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead, but bring back a talented mix in Damar Hamlin, Dane Jackson and Bricen Garner. Much hyped safety prospect Paris Ford will join the mix as well after redshirting. There was a silver lining to that Oklahoma State games as fans earned a free drink if they stayed through that game, but by the looks of it, they had to wake up first.
For Narudzzi, these are the kids he recruited that fit his defensive style. If they cannot improve, it’s now on him. For Pitt to make a bowl, the defense cannot be the sieve that it has been the last two seasons.
Alex Kessman returns at place kicker, but Pitt will now have to replace Quadree Henderson who was an All-American kick returner in 2016, and one of the country's most dangerous return threats. For any team looking to make progress, special teams cannot be a liability like they were a season ago.
Now that Purdue seems to have found their coach, Pitt will not have to deal with those pesky Narduzzi rumors. Pitt has a tough schedule, which their fans make sure everyone knows. They have tough road games at UCF, Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Miami. They host Penn State on Sept. 8 in a night game at the Steelers' stadium. That game will be one of the biggest of Pat Narduzzi’s career, setting the tone for the season. Pitt should be better this year, but if that equates to more wins remains to be seen.