5 questions with Pitt beat writer Jerry DiPaola

BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 3:  Head coach Pat Narduzzi of the Pittsburgh Panthers reacts after his team's interception against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first half at Lane Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Blacksburg, Virginia. Pittsburgh defeated Virginia Tech 17-13. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh will try to end a two-game losing streak to Georgia Tech Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

In advance of Georgia Tech’s game Saturday against Pittsburgh at Bobby Dodd Stadium, I’ve asked Jerry DiPaola, the Pittsburgh beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to lend us his knowledge about the Panthers. Some good information in here. You can read his stuff here and follow him on Twitter here.

Q: How has Pat Narduzzi impacted this team the most?

A: Several ways, actually. First, the defense needed direction probably more than it needed better players, and Narduzzi — along with coordinator Josh Conklin — provided that. He simplified the defense, didn’t require players to make so many reads and had the courage of his convictions. Linebacker Mike Caprara said yesterday (Wednesday) that Pitt was scrapping much of its defensive game plan early in last year’s Georgia Tech game.

The pass rush is excellent. It already has 21 sacks (two more than last season in 13 games and 4.2 per to lead the nation). Of course, that won’t be much help against Georgia Tech.

He also has given the team and the program a new energy. He was very busy in the off-season, traveling up and down the east coast meeting with alumni groups and other fans, preaching the gospel of Pitt football. The guy is very personable and seems to have a lot of friends at other schools and in the NFL.

He instituted early-morning workout sessions in January that started at 5:15 a.m. (even invited the media to attend one, which I did). The buzz word was finish. And after blowing a 31-6 fourth-quarter lead to Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl (and giving up late scores in losses to Iowa, Duke and North Carolina last season), that was Pitt’s biggest problem.

Q: ESPN’s power index projects a 3-4 finish for Pitt to complete the regular season at 7-5. The remaining games are Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville and Miami. Given what you’ve seen, do you take the over or under?

A: I’ll go along with 3-4 (7-5). I predicted 8-5 at the beginning of the season. Without Conner, I don’t see how it can be better than that. Prediction: Victories against Syracuse, North Carolina and Miami. Losses to GT, Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville. Maybe I’m a pessimist. We’ll see.

Q: Have you heard much about last year’s Tech-Pitt game serving as motivation, or at least a caution to take better care of the ball?

A: Tyler Boyd said it was “like going to Hell and you can’t get out of that.”

I get feeling behind closed doors (meaning at practice, most of which is closed to us) there has been a lot of talk about the fumbles. Boyd said Narduzzi has emphasized ball security at practice, but that’s been the case since the spring. They devoted a whole drill where defensive players do nothing but try to pry the ball loose.

Q: What do the Panthers do the best? Where are the weaknesses?

A: Strangely, they rush the passer much better than they do anything else, but run defense is a close second. Run defense (sixth in the nation) is their first priority, according to what Conklin says all the time.

Pitt has not thrown deep with much success this season. Boyd is averaging only 9.9 per catch. Career average: 14.9. I think it’s a matter of all the WRs getting on the same page with Nate Peterman, who won the job after missing the entire spring (he was graduating from Tennessee at the time). One thing about Peterman: He doesn’t throw many interceptions.

Q: What kind of adjustments were made after James Conner was lost for the year? Would you have thought there’d be a chance they’d be 4-1 at this point?

A: 4-1 is no surprise, considering the schedule. Although I was thinking 3-2 because I overrated Virginia Tech.

Pitt still runs the ball most of the time (197 rush attempts/113 pass attempts), but late leads are a big reason for that. Peterman still isn’t in sync with his wide receivers, but he finds the tight end a lot more readily than Chad Voytik did.

Narduzzi uses co-starters at running back — redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison and sophomore Chris James. Ollison leads with 476 yards, but 207 came against Youngstown State. He also lost a fumble in each of the past two games (at the goal line against Virginia). James has been banged up, but he’s OK now and he had 94 against Virginia.

Offense is mediocre overall and defense has been very good. Who knew?


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