Pete Sampson: Pittsburgh can probably relate to Notre Dame in terms of injuries, at least with its top player. With running back James Conner out for the year, how has Pitts reinvented itself offensively? Or is that still sort of an ongoing process?
Sam Werner: I think they’re still sort of going through that process. Look at the North Carolina game last Thursday, they really didn’t have much of an offensive threat. Pitt doesn’t have that one player it can lean on when it needs an offensive spark. The offense didn’t change without Conner in terms of what they want to do, to be a power running team that holds onto the ball. At times that’s worked, but at times you see they’re working with a red-shirt freshman or a sophomore running back. They don’t have a grinder to always make this work. You’ll get games like Syracuse and Georgia Tech, where Pitt can put together a long drive to win the game (Pitt ran out the clock at Syracuse with a 19-play, 89-yard drive that bled the final 9:20 of the fourth quarter). And then you’ll get games where Pitt can go three-and-out pretty quickly.
PS: For people who haven’t watched much Pittsburgh football this year, how did the offense ultimately get from Chad Voytik to Nate Peterman at quarterback? Voytik was supposed to be the guy going into the season but Peterman has started most of the year.
SW: It’s weird how it worked out. Going into spring ball, the backup was Trey Anderson, who had been a career reserve guy, originally a walk-on and ultimately he transferred to FIU. So coming out of spring practice, Voytik was going to be the guy. Then Peterman decided to transfer from Tennessee and there was a connection there to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney (formerly of Tennessee). But Peterman didn’t get here until the summer, didn’t have the benefit of a spring practice.
What I think really happened was Voytik didn’t seize the job like a lot of people expected him to do or wanted him to do. Pitt rotated quarterbacks during the first couple games of the year and Peterman just looked better.
PS: Are these quarterbacks more similar than different? Who do they compare?
SW: There pretty similar. Voytik is more mobile than Peterman, but Peterman can still run a little bit. It’s not like Tom Savage out there …
PS: I remember one Savage run from a couple years ago …
SW: Yeah, Stephon Tuitt. Exactly.
I think what Peterman has done better is seize the job with his pocket presence, getting through his reads and making decisions. Voytik has had a tendency to lock onto receiver Tyler Boyd. There are worse guys to lock on to, but Peterman does spread the ball around better.
PS: Eight games into Narduzzi at Pittsburgh, what do you make of it? Have you been able to tell the difference?
SW: On the field, especially the defense, has looked a lot better. Games against Akron, Virginia, Virginia Tech, the defense was very good. It’s taken a step back, particularly last week against North Carolina. Still, the defense was a disaster at the end of last season, so it’s still a big difference.
Narduzzi has done a good job of energizing the fan base. He’s an outgoing guy, good personality, good at alumni events during the summer. I think he’s sort of brought a mental toughness that the team just didn’t have last year. To get Pitt to a point where it expects to win in the fourth quarter after some of the ridiculous collapses that it’s had, that’s a minor miracle to me. Even the North Carolina game, a loss, qualifies. Down 21-3, that’s a game that maybe ends 35-10 against Pitt in the past couple years. Instead, Pitt keeps fighting, ends up losing 26-19. There’s a different edge about them.
PS: Where do you think this defense struggles? Narduzzi’s reputation on that side of the ball is obviously superb.
SW: That’s tough to answer. The last couple games they haven’t got to the quarterback enough, but they managed that early on this year. Throw out Georgia Tech with the option, but against Syracuse and North Carolina there just wasn’t enough pressure. When Pitt did get there, it didn’t wrap up and the play got extended. I think the best thing this defense does is play aggressively. They attack up the field and it’s good against the run, even in the last couple games. Watching Notre Dame and how it got played by Clemson and Temple, I’d expect Pitt to do the same, set up to stop C.J. Prosise.
PS: What players do you think have benefitted most from Narduzzi coming in? That doesn’t have to just be guys on offense.
SW: A couple guys on defense, starting with defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett (6-foot-3, 335 pounds). The last staff wasn’t particularly high on him, he was basically a depth player. Now he’s emerged as a starter in the middle as a big body. He’s really hard to move when he’s playing well. Linebacker Mike Caprara was a practice player under the old staff, a depth guy. He’s turned into a pretty clear player now, highly productive. He’s not flashy, but he makes a lot of tackles (fifth on the team with 26 tackles, third with 6.0 TFLs). A third guy, and these are all on defense, is cornerback Avonte Maddox. He was good last year as a freshman, but he’s really improved.
PS: Regardless of what happens Saturday, do you see this season as a success for Pittsburgh already?
SW: Barring a total collapse to 6-6, which means Pitt ends on a five-game losing streak, this has to be an unqualified success. Think about Conner’s injury and if you asked fans how good Pitt could be after that and told them the team could win eight or nine games, that’s a good place to be. The North Carolina loss last weekend hurt from an ACC Coastal perspective. But Duke can beat them this weekend and get back into the mix. Pitt is playing games that matter in November. That’s a new experience for this team. And that’s a very good thing.