What to look for when Pitt meets yet another FCS foe in its opener

September 27, 2018

It’s time to peel back the tarpaulin on Pitt’s football team and see what’s been happening beyond the prying eyes of the media.

The season opens Saturday at Heinz Field against another in a long line of FCS opponents. Not that Pitt has asked for input on this issue, but the school has played only four Power 5 opponents in its opener since 1997 and lost to three of them.

Walt Harris never did it. Dave Wannstedt tried it in his debut game in 2005. Remember the eagerly awaited Notre Dame game? Yeah, 42-21, Irish.

After that, Pitt beat Virginia in 2006 and lost in overtime to Utah in 2010 in its only road opener in the past quarter-century.

The ACC welcomed Pitt to the conference with a nationally televised Heinz Field opener against Florida State in 2013, but that only served to attract a large crowd and define the difference at the time between Pitt and the nation’s elite. The Seminoles won 41-13 on their way to a national championship.

This year, at least, there’s the return of Beechview’s Greg Gattuso with his Albany team that includes several players and coaches with ties to Western Pennsylvania. Pitt needs a decisive victory to set the tone for the season. It can’t lose (2012), give up 37 points (2015) or go into overtime (2017) such as it did in three recent openers against Youngstown State.

Here’s what to look for:

1. Get the running game in gear early

All the happy talk about sophomore Kenny Pickett and his posse of wide receivers raises hopes for a strong passing game. But even with all his talent and leadership ability -- and he possesses both in ample quantities -- Pickett needs a strong ground game to make the aerial game work.

Senior running backs Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison will shoulder the bulk of the carries, but look for position coach Andre Powell to slip sophomore A.J. Davis into the mix as a change of pace.

Pitt has five proud men on the offensive line, but not a lot of depth. Injuries could be problematic, especially if any extend beyond the first game.

2. Keep an eye on the front seven

Coach Pat Narduzzi has beefed about no one stepping up in the secondary, but he knows his defense will live or die on how well it can stop the run.

Opponents with the ability to run will get an advantage in the passing game, and in most weeks, that may not turn out well. At that point, the air will be filled with footballs, and who needs that?

Albany has a threat in the running game, with Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, a 5-foot-8, 201-pound junior. He ran for 1,401 yards in 2016 before missing most of last year with an injury.

The keys for Pitt will be to keep Ibitokun-Hanks from breaking the big play on the ground and force quarterback Vincent Testaverde, who hasn’t played since 2014, to grow up fast.

That way, Pitt coaches get a good look at both aspects of their defense: run and pass.

3. Keep the fans entertained

To be fair, this should not be on Narduzzi’s to-do list. His job is to win games in any way possible, and if it’s 40 running plays and safe passes that dink and dunk all the way down the field, so be it.

But fans want a show, something to attract them to Heinz Field after the excitement of the first two games -- the opener and Penn State -- hits its expiration date.

Not for that reason, but maybe we’ll see more big plays. Don’t expect offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to use everything in his playbook against Albany -- good poker players are careful not to show their intentions too soon -- but it’s something to look for next week and beyond.

In three years under Narduzzi, the team has averaged 11.7 yards per completion twice: in 2015 and last season. The way college football is played today, that’s not good enough. The 2016 average (15.2) is more in tune with the times.

There are elements of speed, athleticism and playmaking ability among wide receivers Maurice Ffrench, Shocky Jacques-Louis, Dontavius Butler-Jenkins and Tre Tipton. Expect Watson to use them.

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