The Panthers have a big task ahead of them. It’s Penn State week with all the trappings that come with a rivalry leading up to the kickoff on Saturday at noon. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN and of course those in the Hinterlands can listen to Billy Hillgrove and Bill Osborn on the radio.
No doubt this is a big week in many ways. It is always fun to think about beating Penn State and truth be told we Pitt fans like to dine out on that last game we played where we beat them by a score of 12-0.
That was an interesting game and one that I watched assuming we’d win and we did. Going into the match PSU was sitting at 1-2 while we had reeled off two straight wins albeit over Bowling Green and Kent state.
It was a close game all around and it was our defense that had to carry the day (does that sound familiar for this game Pitt fans?) Here are the stats for the game – you can see we pretty much shut their run game down completely.
Even with two very good RBs in McCoo and the soon to be NFL star Larry Johnson PSU only garnered 1.9 yards per carry – that is great defense no matter how you parse it and thus we had a shutout.
Our ground game was a bit better with 107 yards that day – Kevan Barlow had 99 yards but PSU sacked our QB John Thurman a bunch of times to draw that total down.
Lots of new stories and points of info to talk about. At the end of the article is Pat Narduzzi’s full press conference transcript from yesterday. My comments on it are italicized…
Here is Pat Narduzzi’s Press Conference Notes distributed by the Pitt Media dept. My thoughts are in italics after the paragraphs…
Sept. 5, 2016
Pat Narduzzi Press Conference
Penn State Week
“It’s good to be here today. I guess this is really what all you guys have been waiting for. This has been the moment we’ve been talking about. First of all, I’d like to congratulate Tyler Boyd who has made the roster with the Bengals. He’s done a great job and is going to play a lot of football there. Also, Nicholas Grigsby has made the Rams and Lafayette Pitts is down there with the Dolphins.
I’ve texted those three guys through camp to make sure they were doing what they needed to do and working hard. They are Pitt men that we were obviously very fortunate to coach and to continue to watch play at the next level. That’s everybody’s dream. Right now those guys have really fulfilled that. That’s what it’s all about.
It’s Penn State week this week. It’s going to be a great week. I think our kids are excited. I think our coaches are excited. The fan base is excited and you guys are fired up. We’re going to be locked in as a football team. I know last week a lot of questions were asked if we were focused or not. Whether we were or not, we got the ‘W’ so it really doesn’t matter.
As far as this week goes, our guys will be locked in. We’re going to change the policy a little bit—no disrespect to you guys at all. I’d like to be the only voice this week. I’d like to eliminate all distractions so we’re going to close off practice this week to the media. We aren’t going to have our players talk. We’ll have as many guys available after the game as you need Saturday, but this week we’re going to stay locked in and have no distractions.
Not surprising and his prerogative. He’s taking this seriously.
Every minute (of preparation) is important and that’s an attitude for our football team right now to be able to do that. As an old coordinator, I loved when we did that because it got me excited for whatever reason. Our kids don’t know it yet but it’s something I will relay to them tomorrow when we officially meet on Tuesday. Obviously it’s a huge game for many reasons.
First, it’s an ACC-Big Ten matchup. It will go a long way to show where we are as a football conference. This is two Power Five conferences. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a lot of fun Saturday at noon. We’re excited; it’s obviously an in-state rival. We need to embrace it. You get limited opportunities to do it. I have a lot of respect for what they are doing over there, what they have. Being an old Big Ten football coach, I know a lot about the conference; it’s big, it’s physical and it’s fast.
Interestingly enough I asked him a question about just this at the Media Day press conference about the Big Ten and he said, to paraphrase, its football was played just like any other college football teams.
The ACC has all three of those as well. To me that’s where it starts; it’s a conference battle and an in-state rival. It will be a battle in all of those aspects. Obviously they’ve got two coordinators—they call them co-coordinators—on defense. Brent Pry is their defensive coordinator and Joe Moorhead is their offensive coordinator.
Defensively, they look a little bit different on tape than they did a year ago. They are really fast and I think they’ve got great speed. They are big and physical, like most Big Ten teams. They fly around to the football. One thing you notice is that they really play hard. He’s [James Franklin] got them playing really hard, which as a football coach I have a lot of respect for. They’ve got some really good football players.
They gave up 279 yards to Kent State and that 33-13 win by PSU last week almost mirrored what we did with Villanova. PSU’s offense did pretty well with 209 yards passing and 145 yards rushing…still well below what I’m sure their fans wanted to see on Saturday.
One of them was a former commit to us in Kevin Givens who has been electric for them. He’s not a big guy—about 270 pounds probably. But he’s very athletic, he’s very active—my kind of defensive tackle. Brandon Bell and Marcus Allen are two guys that really pop on tape when you watch them. They’ve done a nice job and have got things going there.
Joe Moorhead came from Fordham and has done some really good things, not only as a head coach but as an offensive coordinator through his career. They are going to come in here with a spread offense—very similar to what you saw last week. They had a bit more of a slower tempo last week. They looked to the sideline almost every down. We expect to get some of that, but I expect to see more of a faster tempo. We’ll be really excited to play a fast-tempo offense.
We’ll see rotations galore if PSU goes fast paced as he thinks. look for Wirginis and Brightwell to see a lot of time at LB.
That gives them advantages of speeding it up but it also gives us advantages because we’re able to kind of do whatever we want to do. We’re not one of those teams that when someone lines up fast on you, you keep it base. One of the beautiful things that we do is when someone wants to line up fast on (us), we can do just about anything to counter.
As long as you can get the personnel you want on the field in time and then call the defenses… if not Barkley is going to run away from Galambos and Caprara like they are standing still.
Special teams wise, their young freshman punter (Blake Gillikin) had a tremendous game. He averaged 47 yards a punt. Their kicker (Tyler Davis) was 2-for-2 on field goals. That’s really all you can ask for right there on special teams.
This week is a chance to find out how we measure up, how we measure up against Penn State and how we measure up against the Big Ten.”
On the challenges PSU quarterback Trace McSorley presents compared to Christian Hackenberg:
“They are a little different. Hackenberg was a drop-back guy that was more of a thrower; you weren’t going to see zone-reads. They’ve got quarterback runs and quarterback keepers now. He’s going to carry the ball and in big games I’d imagine he’s going to carry it even more. When they get down into the red zone, he’s going to be more active as far as running the ball.
McSorley ran for 47 yards against Kent State – he’s a lot like Chad Voytik in many ways. We have been crappy against running QBs in the last two game – ‘Nova’s QB had 58 yards on 5 carries – those being minus the sacks and sack yardage. In other words times when he tucked the ball and ran forward with it – with a game opening 24 yard run.
He’s an active guy and you have to watch him with 11 guys. You had to defend Hackenberg in the passing game, but really there was no threat of him running the football. Last time I saw him (Hackenberg) was two years ago so I didn’t get to see him his last year. He (McSorley) is a good player. He’s throwing the ball well and making good decisions. He’s operating the offense. He took every snap last week so I’d say he’s the guy, but we’ll be prepared for the backup as well who is also a good player. He has athletic ability and can run.”
On if he was happy with the team’s focus against Villanova:
“To be honest with you, we were locked in. We just didn’t execute like we would like to. When you walk out of meetings you always ask your guys, ‘How was it?’ And our guys were really locked in. It was quiet, which is good. Sometimes if they are clowning around or having different conversations, you maybe don’t have that focus. They were locked in and we played hard last week.
Hmmmm – you can’t tell me that offensive line was ready to play football in any way shape or form. there were some guys on our team that took Villanova way too lightly and got their asses handed to them.
If you watched us we were flying around offensively and defensively, we just didn’t execute early on. Offensively, we want to pound it at you. There isn’t a whole lot of change between last year and this year. When I was with Coach (Matt) Canada at Northern Illinois, we were going to line up and run the football at you. We had (Connor) Dintino at fullback (last week).
Unfortunately that appears to be true if you look at the game calling by Canada last Saturday – it was Chaney Version 2.
We wanted to line up with extra guys in the backfield. That’s what we do and we’re going to continue to do that. Was I happy with the rushing yards we had last week? No. But I give credit to Villanova. Number 92 (Tanoh Kpassagnon) was a physical guy, but we’re going to face four of them this week on that defensive line.
We did a lot of that lining up in weird formations and it didn’t work at all – Dintino at FB when George Aston did nothing but kick ass last season? Ollison and Conner on the field at the same time is fine – go to a two-back set and they won’t know which 1,000+ yard rusher is coming at them.
I really hope Saturday was a time to test out all the crappy ideas we had in camp to see what worked. Again, two great RBs and they had only 24 carries between them… You want a run game to work? Well, if you are ahead by 14 points in the 2nd half you run the ball to get it working.
We keep hearing the staff say the run game is the bread and butter of the team and it looked horrid. If we play that way this Saturday we’ll lose.
It will be a great challenge for our offensive line to see if we can get more movement to generate more rushing yards. We want to play into their hands and play Big Ten football. We’re going to line up and run the football. We’ve got to establish the run better. But the focus was there.”
I don’t get this at all. On defense he says we’ll do whatever the hell we want to do regardless of what the PSU offense shows us. Yet on offense we are going to play their style of football – which BTW their defenses have been playing against in almost every conference game last year.
Whatever happened to we not worry about what the other team does but we play our own brand of football which is what we have heard for the last 21 months.
On why the running game wasn’t able to get going against Villanova:
“They packed a lot of guys in the box. We don’t really care if you pack them in the box, we still want to be able to run the ball on you. It’s just a matter of execution. It may have been first-game jitters. That was the opener; this is the second game. We’ll make improvements from week one to week two. I have confidence in that.”
“They packed a lot of guys in the box. We don’t really care if you pack them in the box, we still want to be able to run the ball on you.“… Hey Coach, we better start caring if PSU packs the box because they have DL guys who are a whole lot better, albeit inexperienced, than the team that just shut down our run game to the tune of 3.1 yards per carry.
On this game being bigger than the others:
“Every game is the same. The only game that matters right now is this one. This one is a little bit different. It’s an in-state rivalry. It’s ACC versus Big Ten. I know everybody in the country is going to be watching. There is going to be a lot of eyes on the city of Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania. That is what makes it different. If you go play Notre Dame, of course it is a big game, but they are all the way in South Bend. It’s a long way from home. It’s a little bit different in that regard.”
On the concern about giving Penn State bulletin board material if the players talk:
“No. I don’t think we did that at all last year. That isn’t a concern at all. You guys tell me. I don’t think we’ve ever given out bulletin board material. Our guys have always been mature and understand what it’s all about. It has nothing to do with that. It’s a mindset and the attitude we want to take into the game.”
On the challenges the up-tempo nature of Penn State’s offense presents:
“For us, we operate out of a no-huddle defense. Four different tempos means four different things we’ve got to work on. I don’t know—usually there are two different tempos. They are either going to line up really fast and run a play or line up really fast and make you get ready, probably try to steal a signal, then look over to the sideline and see if they can get themselves a better play. We’re going to get both of those; they are the two major ones that we work on. But four? I think that’s clinic talk.”
On embracing the Pitt-Penn State rivalry:
“It is important to us and we’re going to embrace that tradition and embrace this game.”
On what they are doing to address the headset problem from Saturday against Villanova:
“We’ve addressed it, and I did a poor job of not getting it fixed earlier. Hopefully it gets fixed. You know, coaches coach; players play; officials officiate; and I guess our phone guy has to do the phone guy’s job. We’ll try to get it corrected, but I didn’t do a good enough job addressing it myself. We’ll do whatever we have to do. If we have to go get a brand-new set, we will go and do that.”
On whose responsibility the headsets are:
“All of the headsets are our responsibility. We purchase them ourselves; they aren’t purchased by the ACC. There is a loose wire somewhere under the stadium. We need to find that loose wire. Maybe if you guys have extra time this week, you can go down and help out. I’d appreciate it. There might be a rat that’s chewing on a wire somewhere.”
On if players will no longer be available to the media in future weeks as well:
“No. I love you guys. I want to keep it open. That’s kind of how it’s been for a year-and-a-half and I want to continue to do that. I just don’t want any distractions this week. When my players come off the field, I would rather they go right into the film room and watch that practice than have to spend three minutes (doing interviews).
If it’s three minutes, it might be an important three minutes that they miss. It’s a game of inches and those might be the inches that we miss.”
On if this rivalry has resonated with the players given that they haven’t ‘lived’ it yet:
“It’s hard to say. We’re going to pound on that this week. It’s something that we haven’t talked a lot about because we were locked into Villanova. I know when I first got into a major rivalry, I didn’t get it the first year. I got it the second year. I want to make sure they don’t do the same. It’s my job to make sure they embrace it and understand what it’s all about.”
On how much he has heard about this rivalry and how anxious he is to finally play the game:
“I’ve heard a lot about it. I grew up right down the road in Youngstown, Ohio. As a little kid that was the game. As a kid, I was always just a fan of wherever my dad coached. Back in those days, I can’t say I was a Pitt fan then; I was a fan of wherever he was. He had players in the NFL like Cliff Stout who was with the Steelers.
Todd Blackledge was a quarterback and I grew up with him at the University of Kentucky. My dad was on the staff there and we used to go over to his garage and box. He got the best of us because he was the big guy. I grew up watching Todd Blackledge. Those are the games I remember—the Pitt-Penn State games with Todd Blackledge. He is still a close friend of the family and so is his dad.”
Let’s hope the fact that a Penn State guy used to beat you up on a regular basis has stuck with you.
On the challenges of game-planning for Penn State:
“Offensively they have a lot of similar concepts. Coach Moorhead changed all the terminology but there is a lot of the same stuff. From what I used to know, Coach (John) Donovan was there, but some of the formations are the same. I’m sure they will go back and look at how we defended some of those formations in the past.
They have to figure that out. You kind of have to do your homework on both ends. (We) look back at Fordham, where Brent [Pry] was in the past. You see elements of what they used to do. They still are who they are. They have a different tempo on offense; they used to huddle up. They try to run the ball a little bit more.”
I can’t believe we are talking about Fordham here.
On how Pitt’s defensive depth factored into Saturday’s win following the departure of two starters:
“We anticipated getting all of those (reserve) guys in anyways. The first day of camp, we felt good with our depth at defensive end. Whether Dewayne (Hendrix) is with us or not next week, Rori Blair has been outstanding. Rori Blair had an outstanding practice Thursday; he was playing hard.
The guy was locked in and flying around. Usually I would see a little slower Rori Blair. We anticipated getting him in the game; we feel like they are co-starters anyways. We will be great with either Dewayne or Rori Blair in the game. (James) Folston wasn’t as clean as I’d like him to be, but I expect to get him in there. He is so much better than he was a year ago. We’re not afraid to play those guys.
We’ll need everybody especially on the DL. Folston has to get it together and quickly – he played well in spots last season.
Seun Idowu was slated to start, but maybe he didn’t have as great a week as I’d like him to have. To be honest with you, he played really well. He did what we thought he’d do. He might have been trying a little too hard going into his first week as a starter, but he played really hard. He played like a starter.”
On James Conner’s performance against Villanova:
“He was a little rusty. As you watch it, when he hit the hole he did well; but when he tried to do too much, he wasn’t as effective. He’s a big, powerful, downhill runner. That’s why we’re not a spread offense. We’re going to be a pro-type offense and run the football. Coach Canada has done that and a little bit of the spread in the past. He’s been a pro guy, which is why we want to line up in the pro even though we can still do a little bit of spread stuff. We’ve got big tailbacks. We got a lot of big backs that can run the ball downhill.”
In other words order him to run North and South. Take the decision making out of Conner’s head.
On if these rivalries can get personal for the coaching staffs:
“Not really for the coaching staffs because we don’t get to hit anybody. I don’t anticipate it either. Coaches have to keep their focus. Our job is to coach the players and let them go play. It doesn’t get personal. It’s a football game. There are 11 players for both teams out there each play. It has gotten personal for the players on the field at times I think. I think it will be a testy game, as it’s been in the past. It will be a physical game and both teams will be ready to go.”
We don’t really care as much as the fans think we do. We didn’t go to school at these universities and may not even be working here is a couple of years.
On if things getting personal on the field can be a good thing:
“It can be a bad thing. It can be a bad thing because then you start to get personal foul penalties. On a positive note, Saturday we had three total penalties. (We) talk about a disciplined football team; that’s what (we) want. Every day on the screen, I put a penalty report for the day.
We have officials out there at practice. Our kids did a nice job. I thought a couple of the calls were ticky-tacky to be honest with you. We should have probably only had one foul: the facemask. That’s probably the only one I really agreed with.”
I question the wisdom of second-guessing the refs in public – the last thing we want is a player to mouth off to a ref in a crucial moment and get a unsportsman-like conduct penalty. Let’s teach the kids not to worry about what they can’t change and to concentrate on doing things the right way every play.
On if he can tell the players sense the significance of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry:
“It’s hard to tell. It’s something that we’re going to harp on this week. It’s a rivalry game. You have an in-state rivalry. This is a different game and that’s what I want them to know. It is a different game. It’s a big game. Remember this: it’s a big game, but it does not affect the ACC in one bit. Our goal is to win the ACC championship and it doesn’t affect that.”
These kids were five years old at best when the last game was played. Really, they have to be told to think it is a rivalry. The next three games against PSU will mean more to them in that sense. They’ll learn to hate.
On trying to prevent the players from getting too excited:
“I think it’s a gradual increase. I’m kind of overhyped today. I’m ready to go today. It’s just fun to get out and play. Rivalry games are exciting, but we’re going to have to temper it back a little bit and make sure everyone understands what this is. The other things I am big on is playing fast and always playing loose.
And what this is is a game that doesn’t mean anything toward our final goal of winning a conference championship and getting to the playoffs. We can’t let the kids get so excited they thing the roof has fallen in on the season if we lose it.
Before every game, I say we don’t need tight fists. We need to be loose and go play. We want a loose football team; we don’t want a bunch of guys out there who are afraid to make mistakes. We know there are going to be mistakes. Don’t make a mistake at half speed. Make it at full speed.”
…or don’t make it at all. But if you do learn from it.
On how winning rivalry games helps in recruiting:
“That’s part of the battle. It carries significance off the field after the game. It’s not do-or-die; we’re going to get the players we get. Some people grow up wearing blue and gold and some people grow up wearing blue and white, and it doesn’t matter. We’re going to get our fair share anyways but it does play a major factor in the end. Kids want to play for a winner. They want to know which ship is floating and strong.”
I wonder about the validity of this statement and think it is blown out of proportion. Of the Top 35 players in PA we got 7 and PSU got 4 last recruiting class. What matters isn’t so much who beats who but who does better throughout their regular season.
My experience has been that PSU and Pitt really have different recruiting strategies and we need to worry about Ohio State, Michigan, WVU and Notre Dame just as much as PSU.
On what they are doing to prepare for noise:
“It’s our home stadium. We know it’s going to be loud and I’m sure there will be some Penn State fans there as well. Every week we have music playing in practice and we have crowd noise as well. We always prepare for the noise.”
The music they play at practice sucks – we need to provide them with a playlist.
On the impact special teams will have on the game:
“There are three phases we talk about and it’s critical. If we get an opportunity to kick field goals, they’ve got to go through the uprights. I was happy with Ryan (Winslow). I don’t know what our average was, but I know our net met our goal.
We kicked one out of the end zone where we lost 20 yards. It’s all about net punting and Ryan Winslow had a pretty good day. One thing in the punting game you look at is hang time. Can you get a return out of it or not? If you hit a line drive and it’s 62 yards with no hang time, you give the returner a chance. That’s a factor.”
It sucked. Next question!
On the defensive line’s performance against Villanova:
“Tyrique Jarrett was a war daddy in there. He was a flat-out war daddy. He did what we thought he could do. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s hard to move in there. He just dish-ragged some people on that line. Penn State’s offensive line only gave up one sack last week. A year ago they gave up a few more.
You’re looking at a much improved offensive line without a question. They can move, and you’ve got to be careful with just trying to get the quarterback because he can escape. Last week (Villanova quarterback Zach) Bednarcyzk was able to scramble for a few yards. The first play was a broken play and he made a play out of it. You have to worry about the scramble.”
Which kills us in every loss we have.
On facing Penn State running back Saquon Barkley:
“Saquon Barkley is maybe the best tailback in the country. I don’t look at them all, but he is a great tailback and he is a guy that will be a priority to stop.”
We are pretty screwed here – he’ll get his 100+ and maybe a lot more. We will live and die on turnovers.
On limiting the playbook against Villanova knowing Penn State was looming:
Bingo and thanks for the honesty! No team ever holds back’ plays like the fans think they do save for a trick play here and there. And no team that has scored only 7 points in the first 29 minutes of play against an FCS team is going to hold anything back either.
In the first quarter, they won the time of possession and field-position war and we struggled to get on the board. It’s primarily because of execution. We can’t have that problem this week. I don’t take anything for granted.
One year (at Michigan State) we got beat by Central Michigan and we felt awful after the game. We probably lost one game in the last 12 years that we thought we should have won. We didn’t hold anything back, by the way. They had a receiver that caught everything. After the game we said, ‘We let a MAC receiver kick our butt.’
Little did we know it’s the guy next door—it was AB (Antonio Brown). We didn’t know who he was. They had an NFL quarterback too. You can’t hold anything back. In this business, they all count as one. If you hold anything back, you’re taking it for granted. Maybe some guys do, I don’t know.
There were some major upsets this weekend. Houston beat Oklahoma, the No. 3 team in the country. This game doesn’t mean near as much sitting here 0-1 as it does now that we are 1-0.”
On Penn State’s coaching philosophies:
“For them, their defensive coordinators are the same, so it’s not really a new philosophy although they’ve got some new wrinkles. Offensively, there was a change. They run the same formations but there is a different tempo. I think for us, we’re still a pro-style football team that’s going to run the ball and establish that.
We’re not putting three or four receivers on the field. I don’t think we lined up one time last week where there wasn’t a tight end on the field. They will do the same. Their tight end (Mike Gesicki) is kind of an H-back-type guy. He scored a touchdown on the last series of the game for them. He’s very athletic, a former volleyball player that can jump and go get the ball.”
On freshman defensive tackle Amir Watts as the lone freshman who played Saturday:
“Amir has been active. We anticipate playing a couple more guys moving forward. We were obviously hoping to get a couple more guys in there. If we would have gotten all of our (backups) out there, that would have been a great thing, but the game did not allow for that.
Amir has done a great job and Jeremiah Taleni is sitting behind him right now. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him to do. Amir Watts reminds me a lot of their Kevin Givens. He’s electric; he can run; he’s a high-motor guy.”
On if he’s had any conversations with James Franklin:
“No. We don’t vacation together. We don’t do that. Again, they aren’t in our conference so we haven’t seen them. I’m in communication with other ACC coaches. I’m lucky I’m in touch with my wife (during football season). I don’t have time for anybody else.”
On if he enjoys meeting with coaches at midfield before the game:
“Sometimes, especially if it is a guy you know. I went over and saw (Villanova) Coach (Andy) Talley before the game Saturday. I know Coach Franklin; I’ve seen him at clinics and stuff like that. I don’t know him on a personal level. We’ve never coached together.”
On their preparation to face an up-tempo offense:
“That’s college football now. We’ve prepared for it during camp. We’ve gone three huddles with the defense. We had them go four plays. The (starters) would go out and run a play with fresh receivers. Then the defense had to run all the way down the field and get all the way back. The (backups) are already waiting on the line of scrimmage for the snap of the ball. We have a 12-play fast-tempo series.
We probably went through it four or five times where we had eight plays scripted. There are no injuries or timeouts. You’ve got to play; you’ve got to get lined up and go. That’s part of today’s football. We need to see that on defense. We need to see different fronts and different coverages, so we try to separate that and do what we need.”