Four ways Pitt can beat Miami, and what it could mean
There’s an argument to be made a Pitt loss Saturday at Miami can be worse than losing the following week against No. 2 Clemson in the ACC Championship game.
The Panthers worked hard to win five of its past six games, and the prize is the Coastal title. But in the span of a week, losses to Miami and Clemson could turn Pitt’s 7-4 record into an unspectacular 7-6.
Throw in a bowl-game loss — Pitt has a three-game losing streak in bowls — and it equals a second consecutive nonwinning season.
Here’s how Pitt can avoid that by knocking off the Hurricanes, and what a victory could mean:
1. Listen to the seniors
Nothing sets this team apart from others of recent past than its strong senior leadership. It showed up at halftime of the Wake Forest game when safety Dennis Briggs stood up in the locker room and addressed the team. Briggs, a married man, grabbed everyone’s attention, and the Panthers turned a 10-6 deficit into a 34-13 rout.
“D.B. was point on,” sophomore defensive end Patrick Jones II said. “It was what everybody needed to hear, and it got us motivated and we went out and did our thing.
“He’s a guy you can come to and talk to about spiritual stuff as well as relationship stuff as well as football stuff, and he’s going to give you a good answer.”
There are 15 seniors playing important roles, and most of them have been a part of the program since 2014. There’s a lot at stake for those players.
2. Pressure Miami’s quarterback
Before clubbing Virginia Tech last week, which has lost five of its past six games, Miami had lost four in a row while scoring a total of 60 points.
The key will be making freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry uncomfortable. He’s missing his best pass catcher, Jeff Thomas, who left the team this week, and he will be facing a Pitt defense that has collected 16 sacks in the past five games.
It’s not an easy task, though. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has been studying 6-foot-6, 340-pound Miami guard Navaughn Donaldson, and he noted, “On film he looks bigger.”
Initially, Pitt will try to stop the run game led by Travis Homer, who has 962 yards from scrimmage. If that works, Perry must find alternate targets through the air, and that’s when Pat Narduzzi can turn up the heat with his pass rush.
3. Keep the offense balanced
Here’s a question: Can the passing game be as productive as it was at Wake Forest?
Quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for a career-high 316 yards and three touchdowns last week and stretched his interception-free streak to 110 attempts.
But Wake Forest has the No. 13 pass defense in the ACC, allowing an average of 285.7 yards per game. Miami is No. 1 at 141.7, with 15 interceptions and two pick 6s. The problem for Pitt extends to Miami’s run defense, which has NFL-bound players in its front seven.
By the numbers, Miami has the No. 4 overall defense in the nation (274.5), behind only Michigan, Clemson and Mississippi State.
4. Don’t underestimate home cooking
Pitt defensive end Rashad Weaver won’t have much time to sit down for a meal with his family, but just being around his mom, sisters and friends — and the south Florida weather — will give him a warm feeling.
“I’m going to be smiling walking off the plane,” said Weaver, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native. “I love going back home, just feeling the heat. It makes me feel good.
“My mom texts me and tells me how much she misses me. My sister, I talk to her on a daily basis. It’s always good to be around your family.”
He said it’s also a form of motivation.
“We know a lot of people are watching,” he said. “People you went to high school with, coaches, family and everyone because they’re fans of the other team and they’re supporting me, so you always want to put on (a good show) for your team, yourself and for your family and friends back home.”
Weaver’s dilemma — if it can be called that— is people calling for tickets. He said he’s received about 50 requests.
“I’ll work with what I get, and tell the rest of the people to go buy some,” he said.
5. Turn the page, finally
There are pockets of Pitt fans who still believe firing Dave Wannstedt was a mistake. They fuel their argument by noting in the past seven seasons, Pitt never has won as many games as it did in 2008 and ‘09 under Wannstedt (nine and 10).
This team can turn that page, once and for all.
If Pitt wins two of its final three games, it will finish with nine victories, a total reached by only three Pitt teams since 1982 (Walt Harris and Larry Fitzgerald were 9-4 in 2002).
Narduzzi wants no player or coach distracted by such a thought, but fans will be watching closely.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.