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5 things to watch when Pitt plays Stanford in Sun Bowl

Jerry DiPaola
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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi calls a play during the first half against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

A strong argument can be made against the importance of college football bowl games.

• Conference championships have long been decided.

• The risk of injury isn’t worth the reward for players anticipating NFL paychecks.

• Games are often held in faraway places (El Paso, Texas, anyone?) over the holidays when even the most travel-savvy fans prefer the couch.

Did you hear what the First Responder Bowl people did in Dallas? They canceled their game between Boston College and Boise State in the first quarter because it rained. But for Pitt on Monday at the Sun Bowl, the game against Stanford matters.

Here’s why, and how the Panthers can finally beat a Power 5 team in a bowl game for the first time in eight years:

1. Hope for next year

Can one game make a significant difference? In this case, it does.

Pitt (7-6) is on the brink of another seven-loss season, which would be the fifth in the eight years since Dave Wannstedt was fired.

A loss also would give Pitt a season-ending losing streak of at least three games for the first time since 2006.

But what if the Panthers win?

That would give coach Pat Narduzzi three eight-victory seasons in four years at Pitt. Plus, it would be a victory against a nonconference Power 5 foe. So far, Narduzzi can claim only one (Penn State, 2016).

Said defensive coordinator Randy Bates: “It’s really important to win the last game because now you have six months to live with it.” 

2. Balancing the senior class against future contributors

Pitt would not be in El Paso if not for senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, the first pair in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Other loyal seniors such as offensive linemen Alex Bookser, Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon, linebackers Seun Idowu and Elijah Zeise and safety Dennis Briggs deserve one last kick at the can.

But what better way to prepare for next season? Coaches might be eager to see running backs A.J. Davis and Mychale Salahuddin, who combined for 30 carries this season. How about young players Gabe Houy, Brandon Ford and Jerry Drake Jr., who will help rebuild an offensive line that loses four starters? Wouldn’t it be instructive to see them against a Stanford front seven that helped the team finish third in the Pac-12 in rush defense (140.9 yards per game).

Narduzzi will play to win, but the opportunity to use younger guys will tempt him.

3. Pickett’s chance at redemption

Quarterback Kenny Pickett was at his best against Wake Forest, leading Pitt to a Coastal-clinching victory by completing 23 of 30 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Then, Miami and Clemson happened. In two games, he was 18 for 38 for 138 yards, no touchdowns and his first interception in almost two months.

“For our guys, coaches too, it’s a matter of pride,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.

“The run game is the way we won a lot of football games this year, so we have to help the run game out with the passing game.”

If the line can keep him upright, Pickett will have a chance. Stanford is last in the Pac-12 in pass defense (274.7).

But the Cardinal’s pass rush is tied for 22nd in the nation with 2.83 sacks per game.

It doesn’t make sense that a team that gets after the passer can’t defend the pass, but that will be an important aspect to watch in this game.

4. Stanford won’t be at its best

Running back Bryce Love’s decision to skip the game and get his ankle well for the NFL Combine looks like Pitt’s best chance for victory.

Love was the Heisman runner-up in 2017, rushing for 2,118 yards before falling to only 739 in an injury-plagued 2018. For his career, he averaged 6.8 per carry, but the Cardinal’s average as a team this season was only 3.7, next-to-last in the Pac-12.

“It’s hard to adjust without Bryce Love,” Stanford offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard said. “Bryce Love, we believe is the best back in college football. It’s unfortunate that he won’t be with us.”

Stanford also will be without several other starters, including second-team All-Pac-12 guard Nate Herbig, who also is preparing for the draft.

Pitt is at its best when it stops the run. It might never have a better chance to do so against a Power 5 foe.

5. Will Bates and Narduzzi come up with some twists?

One big change would have been moving Paris Ford from cornerback to safety, but he didn’t travel to El Paso for personal reasons that puts his future at Pitt in question.

But Bates hinted there might be some unspecified change on defense.

“Adapt, improvise and overcome,” he said, stealing the unofficial slogan of the Marines, a line made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie “Heartbreak Ridge.” (Another Clint, by the name of Hurdle, likes to use it, too.)

“They’ll be some changes,” Bates said. “Exactly what they’ll be, tune in. You’ll see it live.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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