Pat Narduzzi kept team together on its climb toward first place
Just like most coaches who don’t win every game, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi receives his share of criticism from a starving fan base — much of it fair, some of it over the top and all of it (he says) falling upon deaf ears.
But you have to give him this much: Even while starting the season 3-4, he didn’t lose the room. Players listen, players care.
Now, with Pitt (5-4, 4-1) holding its own destiny in the ACC Coastal, the trick is to sustain the type of play that has driven the Panthers to a 3-1 record since the Central Florida loss and first place in the division.
Here are five takeaways from the 23-13 victory at Virginia on Friday night:
1. Narduzzi not afraid to gamble
When was the last time you saw a coach run a play on fourth down from his 10-yard line? How often does a coach order a 53-yard field goal attempt late in a road game he led by only seven points?
But Narduzzi showed his players — specifically quarterback Kenny Pickett, his five offensive linemen, fullback George Aston and kicker Alex Kessman — he believes in them. Sometimes, that’s all young people need to know.
Pickett burrowed behind center Jimmy Morrissey for 2 yards and kept possession of the football, and Kessman hit his sixth career field goal from 53 yards or longer.
Narduzzi demands his team play aggressively, but players want to see their leader coach the same way.
2. Defense needs consistency
In the past four games, Pitt gave up 991 yards and 10 touchdowns to No. 22 Syracuse and Duke. It allowed 593 and two touchdowns to No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 23 Virginia (arguably the two best teams among those four).
Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins wasn’t the threat he had been in previous games because Pitt pressured him, continually collapsed the pocket and recorded a season-high five sacks.
3. Running game works with only one head, too
Darrin Hall’s 229 yards rushing represented the second-best total of his career — he had 254 against Duke last year — and he did it by carrying only 19 times. Qadree Ollison was limited to seven carries for 25 yards, both season lows. He might be playing hurt, but Narduzzi isn’t saying.
Hall’s efforts were more than enough, however. He showed toughness in the trenches, breakaway speed in the open field and the ability to make tacklers on the second level miss. Pitt’s better when both backs are healthy and functioning, but it’s tough to maintain ideal situations throughout the roster, especially late in the season.
V’Lique Carter played, but he carried only twice for 5 yards and caught one pass for 1 yard. He was fooling no one Friday night. It should be a source of encouragement that Pitt can beat a good team on the road without having to rely on the element of surprise.
4. Can Pitt win the Coastal without a balanced offense?
Any knowledgeable football man will tell you, it can’t be done. Pickett completed only 7 of 14 pass attempts for 61 yards, but he also stretched his interception-free streak to three games.
Seven players caught one pass each, and the two best — Rafael Arajuo-Lopes and Maurice Ffrench — were shut out.
But offensive coordinator Shawn Watson found something that worked and stuck to it. Pitt’s 42 running plays were more than twice its total of pass attempts (14), plus three sacks.
Pitt’s line blocks for the run much better than it pass-protects, so what was the point in putting Pickett in the cross hairs of Virginia’s pass rush? Pitt’s 15-play, 84-yard, 8-minute, 40-second touchdown drive in the third quarter was helped considerably by a horse-collar penalty against Virginia, but the Panthers kept the chains moving with 12 running plays.
Still, teams can’t win consistently in college football without a reliable passing game.
5. Mature group paid dividend
Eight of the nine players who made the most impact Friday are seniors.
It starts with Hall and five of his blockers: tackles Alex Bookser and Stefano Millin, guards Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon and Aston.
Linebacker Seun Idowu shared tackle honors (nine) with junior safety Damar Hamlin. Sacks were recorded by seniors Dewayne Hendrix (2 ½), Elijah Zeise (one for a loss of 16 yards) and Shane Roy (one-half).
In the past four games, Pitt has been ahead or within one score of the lead in the fourth quarter. You don’t emerge from that gauntlet with a 3-1 record without good leadership in the locker room.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.