Analysis: Pitt faces difficult second half if issues aren’t addressed | TribLIVE.com
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Jerry DiPaola
Pitt's Jordan Whitehead trots into the end zone for a touchdown during the second quarter against Syracuse on October 7, 2017 in Syracuse, N.Y.

On the day Pat Narduzzi was hired at the end of 2014, no one expected his third season at Pitt to include a 2-4 start, the disappearance of a running game and the need to discipline six players in little more than five months.Yet, all of that has happened in this season of regression.

After consecutive 8-5 records, Pitt must win each of its remaining six regular-season games to match that victory total. Pitt hasn’t been 2-4 since 2012 — the year Paul Chryst tried to clean up Todd Graham’s mess — and it could miss a bowl game for the first time since 2007.

Three ranked teams — No. 11 Miami, No. 15 Virginia Tech and No. 20 N.C. State — remain on the schedule. Assuming no upsets, Pitt could be staring at a 5-7 record (the worst in a decade) after the Miami game.

Here are five storylines to watch over the second half of the season:

Should Narduzzi be concerned about the suspensions?

Pitt’s coach is a good man who has known the difference between right and wrong since childhood when he sat with his father at the kitchen table in Youngstown, Ohio, discussing football and life.

Dismissing two players permanently (Jeremiah Taleni and Rori Blair), suspending one indefinitely (Chawntez Moss) and three others for various number of games (Jordan Whitehead, Quintin Wirginis and Alex Bookser) bothers him more than he wants to admit publicly. To be honest, it is the most surprising development of this season.

There are plenty of good people still wearing Pitt colors. How they react to four losses in five games will determine how this team will be remembered.

But they probably already know that. Hard to believe Narduzzi didn’t remind them.

What’s to become of the quarterback dilemma?

Max Browne’s arm injury interrupted a streak of 97 consecutive pass attempts in which he had not thrown an interception.

His loss for “a couple games,” according to Narduzzi, will be felt because he had started to get in sync with his pass catchers. In fact, Pitt’s quarterback problems have more to do with the other 10 players than the guy taking the snaps. But these hard questions remain:

• Can Ben DiNucci pick up the baton that was taken away from him last week and find a way to solve the N.C. State defense Saturday?

• Will Narduzzi feel pressure to use freshman Kenny Pickett in meaningful snaps so he’s not accused of burning a redshirt for no good reason?

• Can Pickett handle the job, if necessary? He enrolled in January and has impressed coaches in practice. It’s only practice, but there’s plenty of curiousity surrounding Pickett’s potential.

• What becomes of fourth-string quarterback Thomas MacVittie, who was former offensive coordinator’s Jim Chaney’s find? Chaney’s been gone for two seasons.

Can Pitt find a running game?

Moss is Pitt’s second-leading rusher among those who don’t play defense, but he never gained more than 46 yards in a game this season. Since recording 96 against Penn State, Qadree Ollison has averaged 2.4 yards per carry. Whitehead, a safety who is desperately needed on the other side of the ball, has been the leading rusher in all three games in which he has played.

He wasn’t on the field for the start of Syracuse’s final possession after Pitt had cut the lead to three because he rushed three times for 24 yards, plus a conversion run, on the previous series.

“When I get my energy back, I get back out there,” he said.Like Narduzzi said, get the IVs ready.

Can the offensive line handle N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb?

Chubb is tied for the Power 5 lead in sacks (6 12) with Kentucky’s Josh Allen. Pitt is tied with Duke for last in the ACC in sacks allowed (18).

That’s called a bad matchup, especially with Pitt still uncertain of its five best offensive linemen.

Is the defense improving?

In terms of points allowed, Pitt played its best game against a Power 5 team in the 27-24 loss to Syracuse.

The Orange have a high-powered passing attack, but cornerbacks Dane Jackson and Avonte Maddox combined for three pass breakups. The team totaled three sacks.

Maddox, who is performing well in his last of four seasons as a starter, was out of the game for Syracuse’s decisive touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. His play offers hope.

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

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