Last year’s 23-13 Pitt win at Scott Stadium proved to be pivotal, basically serving as the de facto ACC Coastal championship game, sending the Panthers to Charlotte to face Clemson for all the marbles.
Heading into Saturday, Pitt, the defending Coastal champ, gets the preseason favorite in UVA on its turf.
Coach Pat Narduzzi was quizzed on this extensively in his weekly presser on Monday, and largely didn’t take the bait to talk about being the defending champ, being picked fourth in 2019, any of it.
“You can throw everything out. This is 2019. Last year was 2018. This is totally new teams, new people. This is the only time you’re going to see a 2019 team, Virginia team, versus a Pitt team,” Narduzzi said.
The biggest issue for Pitt is the offensive line, a strength of Narduzzi teams. The Panthers lost four starters from a year ago.
The retooled Pitt O-line features a left tackle in his first college game, a grad transfer, and two players who saw a lot of time as reserves in 2018 now being asked to step up.
Third-team All-ACC center Jimmy Morrissey is the building block on the line.
“With Morrissey in there, I don’t have any fear they’re all going to be on the right page, go in the right direction. He’s obviously a key piece,” Narduzzi said.
Narduzzi likes to run the football – Pitt ran on 64.3 percent of its offensive snaps in 2018 – so line play will be key.
“I feel comfortable with our offensive line, I really do. Again, we’ll find out if they get an A, B, C or D. I don’t think it going to be an F, but we’ll find out what kind of grade they get. I’m happy with those guys from the left tackle to the right tackle,” said Narduzzi, who later added, for emphasis: “We’re going to be able to run the football, I guarantee that. That line is going to be key to doing that regardless of who is in the backfield.”
Who will not be in the backfield: Darrin Hall, who ran for 1,213 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, and Qadree Ollison, who ran for 1,144 yards and 10 TDs.
The depth chart released Monday lists junior A.J. Davis, who ran for 142 yards on 32 carries in 2018, and another junior, Todd Sibley, who had one carry in 2018, as co-#1s at tailback.
The talk in the spring and into summer has been that new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple might try to put more emphasis on the passing game, with junior Kenny Pickett (1,969 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs, 58.1 percent completion rate) returning as the starter.
Narduzzi didn’t tip his hand on that heading into the opener, which, yeah, smart. That’s the advantage you have playing somebody in Week 1: not having anything on tape for the other team to pick apart.
The disadvantage to a Week 1 game might show itself for Pitt on the defensive side of the ball. Narduzzi talked about the challenge of getting ready for UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins, arguably the top dual-threat QB in the Power 5, given that he was one of two quarterbacks in the country in 2018 to throw for more than 2,600 yards and run for more than 900, the other being Kyler Murray, who won the Heisman Trophy and was the #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
“Last time we played them, we were in mid-season form as far as hitting a quarterback,” Narduzzi said. “We’re going to have to hit the quarterback this week on the scout field. We did a little bit last week, but our kids were kind of like, even though our scout quarterbacks didn’t have red jerseys on, they were still, ‘That’s the quarterback.’ Stayed off him. They’re going to have the green light to go light a quarterback up and tackle him this week.
“That’s the biggest thing, tackling the quarterback. I would say whether it’s Perkins or anybody, Vinny Testaverde, doesn’t matter who we’re facing in the pocket, we got to hit the guy regardless of how athletic he is.”
Story by Chris Graham