Three storylines to watch: Pitt at Central Florida
The world is watching, and you get the feeling Pitt senses it.
For the second time in five weeks — and two weeks before it happens again when Pitt plays at No. 8 Notre Dame — the Panthers are playing a game Saturday in Orlando, Fla., that has national importance.
Central Florida is ranked No. 13, carries the nation’s longest winning streak (16) and considers itself a contender for the College Football Playoff. Too many people don’t believe that, so the Knights’ margin for error doesn’t even exist. They probably want to spew some of that frustration all over Pitt, their only Power 5 opponent, and bolster their argument for inclusion in the CFP.
What would a Pitt victory mean, and how can Pitt even expect to win? Here are three storylines to follow during the game:
1. Pitt’s season is at stake
No, this isn’t a must-win for the Panthers (2-2, 1-1 ACC). It’s a nonconference game that will be forgotten if Pitt recovers to contend for the ACC Coastal championship.
But we’re talking reputation, perception and momentum.
Despite big victories against No. 2-ranked teams Clemson and Miami the past two years, Pitt doesn’t have a national image. Why not? Maybe because it has defeated only four Power 5 schools in the past two seasons (16 games).
Central Florida (3-0, 1-0 in the American Athletic) isn’t Power 5, but it’s close enough for a Pitt victory to send shockwaves across the nation and give the Panthers confidence to tackle tougher games later this season.
“Great football team, talented, confident, fast in all spots,” coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It’s going to be a challenge for our kids to find out where we are when it comes to playing top-25 teams.”
Just as important, Pitt doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s 5-7 season.
“Being in this position and seeing how last year went, you have flashbacks for stuff that happened last year,” senior linebacker Elijah Zeise said. “The big challenge for all of us is to get that out our minds, taking everything one step at a time to make sure we don’t have another year like last year.”
2. Corral that quarterback
Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton is a Heisman Trophy candidate who can run as well as he can pass. He can polish his resume with a big victory and lots of stats against Pitt’s struggling defense.
That’s what everyone is expecting. Central Florida is a 13½-point favorite. Historically, Pitt has had trouble containing mobile quarterbacks because it never had enough speed on defense. But after three classes of his own, the expectation was Narduzzi would have recruited well enough to give him a comfort level against up-tempo offenses.
“You’re never comfortable,” he said. “It just brings another dimension to the football game (to worry about).”
Asked if his defense is better-suited than it’s ever been to handle a speed-based offense, Narduzzi didn’t say yes and didn’t say no. He only said, “That would be disrespecting Ejuan Price and some of the other good players we’ve had on this team (in the past).”
3. Go to ground, control tempo
The best way for Pitt to win is to keep the ball out of Milton’s hands, stop him on third down and control the clock with its running game.
But is the defense good enough? In four games, Pitt has allowed too many yards (396.3 per game) to keep punting the ball back to Milton.
The solution is to lean on running backs Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall, A.J Davis and Mychale Sallahuddin (at least three of those four), take some pressure off sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett and shorten the game.
Narduzzi was asked how he can defend Central Florida, which scored 150 points in three games, if it had few answers for North Carolina, which scored 38 with an offense that was averaging only 18.
“ Are they (Central Florida) much better? I don’t know. I think North Carolina’s pretty good.”
Thursday, Miami beat North Carolina, 47-10.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.