First Look: Pittsburgh

Touted again as a dark horse conference contender, Pittsburgh might actually have the makings of an ACC surprise.

If Pittsburgh doesn’t push Notre Dame this year it will be a surprise.

No program has done more to harass the Irish during the past decade with less credit than the Panthers, regardless of the revolving door within the head coach’s office. Pat Narduzzi is Pitt’s fifth head coach in the past six years, following Dave Wannstedt (fired), Mike Haywood (fired), Todd Graham (Arizona State) and Paul Chryst (Wisconsin).

Pitt helped end runs by Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis here. It nearly derailed Notre Dame’s march to the BCS National Championship game in a triple overtime weird-fest. When the Panthers beat the Irish two years ago at Heinz Field in November, it reduced Notre Dame to an afterthought. Brian Kelly’s three wins over Pittsburgh as Notre Dame’s head coach have been by a combined 10 points.

Now Narduzzi gets his shot to turn the perpetually inconsistent Panthers into something stable, which is exactly what he helped do as defensive coordinator Michigan State.

Pittsburgh has finished 6-7 in three of the past four years. The other season in that run, Pitt went 7-6.

“You don't do it overnight. No quick fixes,” Narduzzi said at ACC Media Days. “You start with the people you're involved with, building relationships with your players. Everywhere I've ever been, my players are going to play their tails off for me. There's a love between the players and the coach. If you treat them the way you treat your son or daughter ... It's getting everything out of those kids.”
 
Regardless of Pitt’s overall record, playing the Panthers has been a pain for the Irish. The relatively recent add to the ACC won’t be coming off Notre Dame’s schedules, which makes getting a handle on the Panthers important for Kelly.

Irish Illustrated’s off-season look at Notre Dame’s schedule continues with Pitt.

Pitt Packs 1-2 Punch

Nobody on Notre Dame’s schedule has a more productive running back-wide receiver combination returning than Pittsburgh. In fact, nobody on any FBS schedule does.

Running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd combined for 3,026 yards from scrimmage last season and 34 total touchdowns. The next best returning pair on Notre Dame’s slate, including the Irish, is actually Tarean Folston and Will Fuller with 1,983 yards and 21 touchdowns.

“Really don't pay attention to the numbers,” Conner said at ACC Media Days this week. “With the hard work in the off-season that I put in, yards and touchdowns will come. I stay focused when my number is called in the huddle. Like I say, I know those yards will come.”

With quarterback Chad Voytik also back, Pittsburgh has a core that can carry an offense and sometimes a team. The Panthers averaged 36.4 points during their final five games last season but lost three of them with a dreadful defense. If Conner, Boyd and Voytik can pick up where they left off, Pat Narduzzi could be set on one side of the ball.

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is tasked with making sure that happens. He spent the past two years as offensive coordinator at Arkansas and was on staff at Tennessee with Harry Hiestand before that. He has some track record with Notre Dame too, having served in the same role at Purdue from 1997-2005, when the Boilermakers went 4-5 against the Irish.

“Coming from Arkansas, has a great résumé,” Conner said. “Had two backs that went over 1,000 yards. He's bringing a different style to our offensive game this year. Still run heavy, run first. He believes in me. I think the run game will be pretty successful.”

Boyd could miss the start of the season following an off-season arrest for DUI, but it’s not expected to keep him out long-term. Narduzzi said he’s not sure how much time Boyd will miss or if he’ll miss any at all.

Pitt suffered a more serious off-season blow when right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith was lost for the year with a right knee injury, which reshuffled the right side of the line. That means the Panthers will likely shift their starting right guard to right tackle, their starting center to right guard, and start senior Artie Rowell at center.

Can Narduzzi Fix It?

When Narduzzi left Michigan State for Pittsburgh after eight seasons in East Lansing, he headed to the Steel City to recreate Mark Dantonio’s formula for success. Narduzzi was a big part of that alchemy, turning the Spartans into one of the nation’s top defenses, including last year when Michigan State led the nation in rush defense and ranked No. 8 in total yardage allowed.

Narduzzi’s project will be attempted with some Michigan State spare parts, including cornerbacks coach Renaldo Hill and linebackers coach Rob Harley. Hill played corner for the Spartans and Harley was a graduate assistant there during Narduzzi’s run. Pitt also took graduate transfer defensive tackle Mark Scarpinato, who retired last year to attend med school after rotating on the Spartans line during its Rose Bowl season.

There’s a Notre Dame connection too in strength coach Dave Andrews, who was an assistant under Paul Longo last year.

“Coach Narduzzi wants everybody to play as fast as they can, highest tempo as they can,” said defensive tackle Darryl Render at ACC Media Days. “We want to fly around the ball, make a play. Not like it's going to be one person making a play, it's going to be everybody making plays this year.”

Pitt returns eight starters but lost three of its top four tacklers from a unit that was middling in most major statistics and awful at affecting opposing quarterbacks. The Panthers slotted No. 103 nationally in sacks and No. 118 in tackles for loss. Only one Power 5 conference team was worse at making plays behind the line.

“Last year we left a lot of games and plays on the field that we should have made.” Render said. “So that's our big thing this summer in this off-season is working out, working on finishing, so we're able to finish in the fourth quarter and win those games we're supposed to win.”

The Panthers defense collapse during the second half of last season, hit for 56 points by Georgia Tech, 51 by Duke and 40 by North Carolina, all losses. Pitt lost 35-34 to Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.


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