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Does Pitt have what it takes to win five in a row?

November 8, 2018

At the end of Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s weekly conference call with ACC reporters Wednesday, someone told him to enjoy the week off.

He laughed. Could the reporter have been more naïve?

“There is no week off,” Narduzzi said.

Seven games into the season, Pitt’s work is just beginning.

Coaches and players spent most of last week preparing for Saturday’s game against Duke almost as if there was no break in the schedule. There was less “running into each other,” Narduzzi said, but they still practiced twice before getting the weekend off.

“We call it catch-up week,” he said. “Catch up on your academics, health, fundamentals, catch up on video study for Duke.”

The Blue Devils are the start of five-week stretch that will either extend the disappointment of a 3-4 start into the offseason or launch Pitt within reach of an ACC Coastal championship.

Most likely, Pitt will end up somewhere in between those two outcomes, but it will be instructive to see how Narduzzi spurs Pitt’s recovery from its slow start and way-too-ambitious nonconference schedule.

Here are five storylines to watch over the final five games:

1. Pitt can win the Coastal with a five-game winning streak.

The nonconference gauntlet is over, with Pitt going 0-3 against ranked teams Penn State (No. 18), Central Florida (No. 10) and Notre Dame (No. 4).

“Out of our system, out of our way,” Narduzzi said.

That leaves Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Miami -- all unranked in the Associated Press poll -- standing between Pitt and the ACC title game Dec. 1 in Charlotte. The best way -- maybe only way -- for Pitt to win the Coastal is to win ’em all.

“We can really do some great things here at the end of the year,” he said. “We have to play at our best. Five great teams ... those are five great opportunities.”

Pitt has won five in a row only four times since 1983 (’91, 2001, ‘08 and ’09). Narduzzi won four in a row in 2015, his first year, but he’s 18-20 since then and 8-12 since winning 16 of the his first 25 games.

A victory against Duke would be a key first step in calming a restless fan base.

2. Quarterback could use some help

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett is far from a finished product. He’s still learning the difference between:

• Seeking comfort in the pocket, where he can read the defense and gain 20 yards with his arm.

• Using his athletic ability and football sense to tuck it and run.

With more help from his protectors and pass catchers, he’ll eventually be able to do both.

Junior wide receiver Aaron Mathews caught four passes for 47 yards against Notre Dame, which is encouraging. Notre Dame recorded only one sack (even though it was a big one in the fourth quarter), which might indicate the line is coming together.

But there has been no tight end safety net all season. Tyler Sear, the best of the group and a former starter, left the team before the Notre Dame game under a mutual agreement with Narduzzi. He plans to transfer, joining Chris Clark and Charles Reeves Jr. as tight ends who have departed since the spring.

Plus, losing wide receiver Taysir Mack (ankle) for two games has been difficult to overcome. Mack caught six passes for 171 yards against Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

Narduzzi won’t say if Mack will play against Duke, but the coach seems to think prayer might help.

“You know, I don’t know,” he said, when asked if anyone will return from the injured list. “I’m going to go to church. Maybe I have to hit the late-night Mass every night this week. If we don’t, next man up. We’re going to keep going.”

Then, he added, “We’re relatively healthy right now.”

Make of that what you will.

3. The defense is getting better

There was plenty of praise for Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book before Pitt confused him with different looks and blitzes while recording three sacks and two interceptions.

The defense is Narduzzi’s best and most experienced and is finally starting to play like it after disappointing displays against Penn State, North Carolina and UCF.

After seven games last season, Pitt had allowed 418-plus yards five times. This season, an opponent has reached 400 only twice.

4. You can’t coach speed, but you can recruit it.

Pitt signed junior Maurice Ffrench as a game-breaker, and he is fulfilling expectations. He has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and is second in the nation in return yardage (33.8, first in the Power 5) to Utah State’s Savon Scarver (38.3).

CBS Sports placed Ffrench on its midseason All-American team.

5. Keep an eye on the line of scrimmage

For one 17-play, 88-yard, nearly 10-minute touchdown drive, Pitt had control of the line of scrimmage against a team that could end up in the College Football Playoff. That’s where games are won, but Pitt’s overall point production is only 12th in the ACC (24.3 per game).

Still, the offensive line offered a glimmer of hope , especially senior left guard Connor Dintino, who was named to the Pro Football Focus midseason All-ACC team. PFF’s stats reveal Dintino has allowed only two pressures on 188 pass-block snaps.

And he wasn’t even considered Pitt’s best offensive lineman at the beginning of the season.

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