Behind Enemy Lines - Pittsburgh Panthers
By Alan Gerould, Senior Columnist
NAPLES, FL — The Western Michigan University Broncos Football Team pitched a shutout in its home opener, beating Illinois State of the FCS 28-0. The Broncos churned out 233 yards on the ground while limiting the Redbirds to 57 yards total offense. The impressive defensive numbers were just what the maligned defense needed as the team next travels to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers out of the ACC. We are pleased to welcome in Jim Hammett who writes for our Rivals counterpart, Panther-lair.com. Jim was in Knoxville to witness the Panthers narrow win over Tennessee 41-34 to open the season 2-0. Jim has been following the Panthers for years and has offered to share his knowledge on all things Pitt. Thanks for helping us out Jim, you are now on the BroncoBlitz hot seat.
BroncoBlitz: I always thought that Pat Narduzzi was a brilliant defensive coach and wasn’t surprised when Pitt tapped him as it’s new head coach back in 2014. It has taken some time but Narduzzi has Pitt back among the elites in the ACC as everyone tries to overtake Clemson as Top Dog. The Panthers have a realistic chance to open the season at 5-0 (New Hampshire and Georgia Tech follow WMU), something they haven’t done since 1991. What is there about Narduzzi that make him a good fit at Pitt? How does he relate to his players? Do you think he remains at Pitt for the long haul?
Jim Hammett: Pat Narduzzi came to Pitt at a time when the program needed stability. Pitt went from Dave Wannstedt to Todd Graham to Paul Chryst in a relatively short amount of time, and the program needed someone to settle things down and build something and that’s exactly what Pat Narduzzi has been able to do. There is a good culture at Pitt right now, the program is among the top in the country at retaining players. Not a lot of Pitt players are in the transfer portal and I think it speaks to him being a player’s coach. Pitt also just had six players drafted this past year, the most the program has had in a single draft since 2004. Narduzzi signed his first top-25 recruiting class in February as well. Pitt also just received a 20 million dollar gift from an alum a few weeks ago. So all in all, the program is definitely stable right now. I think the one missing piece is a big winning season. Narduzzi has topped out at 8 wins three times, and Pitt fans are anxious to breakthrough and win 9 or 10 games. As for him remaining at Pitt for the long haul? I think as long as Pitt remains competing for ACC Coastal titles and making bowl games, he’ll remain with the program, but at a certain point 7-5 and 8-4 seasons will be tough swallow if there isn’t an occasional 9 or 10-win campaign mixed in there every so often. On the other side of things, Narduzzi likes Pittsburgh. He’s a Youngstown, Ohio native, so he’s as close to home as he can be. I don’t think he’s looking to go anywhere at the moment.
BroncoBlitz: I was really impressed with quarterback Kenny Pickett in the Tennessee game. His numbers weren’t eye popping but he managed to make key plays when they were needed most. Pickett is a super senior and came back for his final year of eligibility to improve his stock with the NFL . What makes Pickett special? What kind of problems does he present to opposing teams?
Jim Hammett: Kenny Pickett’s experience and poise really stand out about him. He is a fifth-year player, and this is his fourth season as the full-time starter. Pickett’s first career start was against No. 2 Miami back in 2017, and he led the Panthers to an upset win that day. He has started every game for Pitt since, except for three due to injury. Pickett has played a lot of football, and he understands what is asked of him by his coaches. As you saw in the Tennessee game, Pitt relies on him a lot as the running game still is working on ironing out some issues, and he’s more than capable of handling that responsibility of carrying the offense. At one point in the second quarter of that Tennessee game, he had completed 11 passes in a row. He has steadily improved throughout his career, and he’s been very sharp in two games this season with 557 passing yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. A thing to watch with Pickett is that he’s more mobile than you might think. He’s not a dual-threat or a runner by nature, but he is more than capable of keeping plays alive and being a threat to pick up yards on a scramble or a read option. Pickett has 16 career rushing touchdowns, which is tied for most in Pitt history for a quarterback.
BroncoBlitz: The Panthers defense was put in a hole early against the Volunteers and did just enough to get the win. Two games in, what are your concerns about the Pitt defense?
Jim Hammett: Pitt lost some very good players from the defensive side of the ball from last season. Four players that started last year were drafted into the NFL in Damar Hamlin, Patrick Jones, Jason Pinnock, and Rashad Weaver. So I think there were some concerns losing that kind of talent. Jones and Weaver were both consensus All-Americans last season. I think the biggest concerns right now with the team are tackling and inexperience in the secondary. Pitt has 17 missed tackles against the Volunteers, which is pretty uncharacteristic for a Pat Narduzzi coached team. The young secondary also left some routes pretty open for the Vols, so that’s something to watch. In the end, Pitt still has a pretty good and effective defense. The Panthers generated three turnovers, had five sacks, and nine tackles for loss against Tennessee. They make big plays, but sometimes they also give up big plays. Pitt sells out to stop the run and they are very aggressive at rushing the passer, that’s sort of how they always play. If you can avoid the pass rush and connect on some deep shots, then you can have success against the Panthers.
BroncoBlitz: Special Teams played a big role in the game on Saturday, starting with having a punt blocked early in the game, setting up the Volunteers first score. Tell us the good, the bad and the ugly about the Panthers specials.
Jim Hammett: The Good? Pitt had a battle at place kicker during fall camp, and the winner of that job, Sam Scarton, is 3/3 on field goal attempts this season. The Bad? Kirk Christoudoulou was a preseason All-ACC pick at punter, and he has not been sharp through two games. The blocked punt wasn’t his fault, but he shanked a kick late in the fourth quarter that almost cost Pitt the game. The Ugly? Pitt allowed Tennessee to have too many big returns. The Panthers also had some bad kickoff returns that resulted in poor field position. Pitt looks to be going with senior Melquise Stovall as the return man, as sophomore Jaylen Barden has struggled. All in all, Pitt’s special teams have not been good to this point.
BroncoBlitz: The Bronco secondary features two transfers from Pitt, S Bricen Gardner and CB Therran Coleman. We are thrilled that both of these student/athletes chose WMU to continue their education. I’m sure it will be strange for them coming out of the visitors locker room. Do you have any particular memories of either of these players?
Jim Hammett: Believe it or not, both players had game-winning interceptions in overtime during their respective Pitt careers. Bricen Garner earned a starting job heading into the 2017 season, and he picked off a pass against Youngstown State to allow Pitt to escape with a 28-21 win. In the 2018 season, Pitt knocked off Syracuse 44-37 in overtime and Coleman’s interception sealed the win for the Panthers. Coleman and Garner sort of got buried on the depth chart a bit during their time at Pitt. Coleman also had some lingering injuries that held him back as well. Not only are they Pitt grads, but they are also Pittsburgh natives. Coleman played in the Pittsburgh City League in high school, and Garner played for Pittsburgh Central Catholic. So it will be a big homecoming for both players, and I’m sure a lot of family members will be in attendance.
BroncoBlitz: Pitt will be favored to win its third straight game this Saturday at Heinz Field. What would it take for WMU to pull off the upset? What do you expect Narduzzi to try to accomplish in this game? I haven’t seen the spread on this one yet but what do you think the final score will be?
Jim Hammett: I think in order for Western Michigan to pull off the upset, the Broncos will have to try to exploit some of Pitt’s weaknesses. I mentioned on defense they have a tendency to give up big plays. The special teams are a mess, and on offense the running game is a work in progress. I would expect Narduzzi and Pitt to try to build an early lead and try to control the game, so they can try to work on some of those aforementioned issues. Can they do that? I’m not sure. Western Michigan probably won’t be on Tennessee’s level, but the Broncos are better than UMass. So Pitt can’t take this one lightly at all. I expect Pitt to win something like 42-21. I think Pitt’s offense is operating pretty well right now behind Kenny Pickett, but I think Western Michigan may keep it close for a while.