Five storylines to watch after Pitt’s win over Duke
There might be a tendency to put too much emphasis on Pitt’s game Friday night in Charlottesville, Va., against No. 23 Virginia (6-2, 4-1).
But go ahead. Enjoy, Pitt fans. After 14 seasons of mostly mediocre football since the most recent major bowl invitation, including the past 20 games (9-11) under coach Pat Narduzzi, you’ve earned it.
At stake Friday is first place in the ACC Coastal, which is at once the weakest division in the Power 5 and a great place to be because almost anybody can win it. Pitt (4-4, 3-1) hasn’t been in first place in November since the 2010 Big East season.
Here are five storylines to get you through the week:
1. Expect more tense moments
Say what you want about the Narduzzi era — and maybe it’s failed to reach some fans’ expectations — but his teams keep things interesting. Overall, 25 of 46 games since 2015 have been decided by single-digit margins. Pitt is 13-12 in that scenario, but Narduzzi believes those games build character.
“It’s easy to go blow people out and be better than everybody for four quarters,” he said, exaggerating to make a point. “You’d like a blow out.”
But he doesn’t mind winning “tight games where our guys continue to believe all the way to the end.”
“There are going to ups and downs, there is going to be adversity and it ain’t going to be easy.”
2. The return of Alex Kessman
Close games often are decided by a field goal, and Kessman figures to be a big piece of the puzzle over the next four games.
He already owns the longest field goal at Heinz Field (55 yards, plus two 54-yard efforts), and he has made five of 50 or more in his career, more than any previous Pitt kicker.
“Pregame, I hit from 62 going into the closed end (away from the Ohio River),” he said. “I told coach Narduzzi, ‘I’m good from 58 or so. I can hit that.’ ”
Kessman admits the long ones fired up the team, but he also didn’t forget to credit holder Jake Scarton, who’s also the backup kicker.
On the 48-yarder that tied the score 45-45 with 2 minute, 33 seconds left, Kessman said, “The laces were back, and Jake spun the the ball all the way around.”
A stat to consider with three of the four games away from Heinz: Kessman is almost perfect at home (seven of eight) but 0 for 2 on the road (both at Notre Dame).
3. Don’t forget that defense — ouch!
Pitt allowed 619 yards against Duke, 57 short of the team record set last year against Oklahoma State.
Narduzzi put much of the blame on poor tackling, a common complaint, even in the NFL. But he’s not excusing it.
“That’s not us,” he said.
Senior linebacker Seun Idowu was not afraid to swallow some blame.
“I was the culprit on a couple plays,” he said. “Younger guys had to say, ‘Hey, it’s all right, buddy. You make the next couple plays and make it up to us.’ ”
The good thing is Pitt recovered to hold Duke to a field goal in the fourth quarter after the Blue Devils scored six touchdowns in the first three.
“You can’t panic in those moments,” Idowu said. “You have to stay locked in, have confidence in the game plan.”
4. Kenny Pickett is a ‘dude.’
You don’t have to be in tune with the latest lingo to know what Narduzzi meant when he called his quarterback “a dude.”
“Kenny is a strong kid,” the coach said. “I’ll go to any extent with that guy.”
When the ball was in the air, Pickett was mistake-free, recording for the first time consecutive games without an interception. He also ran for a season-high 76 yards.
Taysir Mack played for the first time in three games, but he did not have a catch. Narduzzi said Mack, who has been recovering from an ankle injury, may be more active in practice this week and might help Friday in Virginia.
5. Is running the ball enough?
Pickett was good late, but he still hasn’t thrown for 200 yards in any game this season.
Does that matter?
Not when the ground game is working with backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, Pickett himself and V’Lique Carter, a former cornerback.
Ollison is 105 yards short of joining Tony Dorsett, Curvin Richards, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and James Conner as the only Pitt backs with multiple 1,000-yard seasons.
Overall, Pitt’s 484 yards on the ground were 46 short of the all-time Pitt record set in 1975 against Army.
Also, forget about Carter playing on both sides of the ball.
“We’ll go recruit another DB,” Narduzzi said. “You have to score points to win nowadays.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.