Is Pitt’s defense improving? Pat Narduzzi withholds judgment

November 14, 2018

A question thrown at Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi on Thursday was intended for him to praise his defense for playing its best game of the season at Notre Dame two weeks ago.

He wanted no parts of it.

Here’s are few theories why:

• That was nearly two weeks ago, and all eyes and thoughts are on the Duke game Saturday at Heinz Field. Coaches like to say the past has no impact on the present.

• Maybe Narduzzi didn’t want to trivialize what linebacker Quintin Wirginis, who is out for the season with a knee injury and didn’t play against Notre Dame, means to the team. No matter how well Pitt overcame the loss of Wirginis at Notre Dame and no matter what happens the rest of the season, the Panthers are better with him.

• Maybe he’s not willing to praise his team for any reason when it sits with more defeats (four) than victories (three).

• Maybe he’s waiting for something tangible to celebrate.

“You say it’s the best,” Narduzzi said in response. “I don’t know if I agree with you. There were other games that were pretty good, too. Statwise, I guess. You have to stop looking at stats. Stats don’t mean anything.”

He also was pleased with what happened in the Georgia Tech game when Pitt allowed the same number of points as Notre Dame scored (19). The difference is Pitt defeated Georgia Tech, while mostly solving its option offense, and lost to Notre Dame, which hit the Panthers with a big pass play late in the fourth quarter that decided the outcome.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but Pitt did hold the No. 3 Irish to 344 total yards. That was one of five games (more than half of the season) in which Pitt’s opponent failed to reach 400.

NCAA stats will tell you that 71 of 129 FBS schools average more than 400. Pitt’s media guide reveals opponents averaged 396.6 per game last year.

Does that mean the defense is getting better?

Narduzzi did suggest maybe Pitt has put the days and weeks since back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Central Florida to good use.

“I don’t know, is it little by little getting comfortable, little by little the new coordinator (Randy Bates) feeling comfortable with what he’s doing?” he said. “I can’t put a finger on it. Different teams do different stuff. There are different matchups.

“Notre Dame’s big and physical and fast. Bigger wideouts that maybe aren’t the (Duke) slot receiver T.J. (Rahming) is going to be this weekend.”

Rahming (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) is Duke’s leading receiver with 30 catches for 316 yards and four touchdowns. Maybe his quickness will be a decisive element Saturday.

Narduzzi said Duke’s offense resembles previous opponents North Carolina and Central Florida. “As far as what they do and how they do it,” he said.

Which could indicate trouble because those games were Pitt’s worst, statistically (a combined 1,054 yards and 83 points allowed).

″(Duke) is going to snap the ball somewhere between 17-23 seconds,” Narduzzi said. “They’ll try to tempo you, quick snap you at 10 seconds. They are going to do all those same things (UNC and UCF did). Notre Dame really didn’t try to do that.”

But Narduzzi said his defense hasn’t changed.

“We didn’t do anything against Notre Dame that we didn’t do against the team before that and the team before that,” he said.

Is it executing better?

“Maybe. Maybe we’re calling the defenses at that right time, too. Who knows?”

Bottom line is Narduzzi won’t believe his defense has improved sufficiently until its lining up in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 1 for the ACC Championship game.

Until then, everything else are just numbers that don’t tell the whole story.

Note: Pitt will wear helmet stickers Saturday with the initials AO in honor of former teammate Alex Officer, who has been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. “So we can keep him in our thoughts while we are out on the field,” Narduzzi said.

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