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Hobbled Pitt nears rough stretch in ACC

| Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, 6:48 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Avonte Maddox returns a fourth-quarter interception for a touchdown against Marshall Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016 at Heinz Field.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
University of Pittsburgh defensive back Dane Jackson takes off with the ball during practice on the South Side, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015.

Every circumstance surrounding Pitt, including opponents, decisions coaches must make and perhaps even the pressure to win, will become more daunting and intense in the second half of the season.

For only the third time this decade, and the second in two seasons under coach Pat Narduzzi, Pitt will take a winning record into its seventh game when the Panthers (4-2, 1-1 ACC) visit Virginia on Saturday.

Among the baggage Pitt will carry south of the Mason-Dixon Line is a starting lineup missing several important pieces. Cornerback Avonte Maddox, who hurt his arm before halftime Saturday against Georgia Tech and later was wearing a sling, likely won't play.

That makes four defensive positions that have been manned by replacements through six games. Also out are defensive end Dewayne Hendrix (foot) and outside linebackers Mike Caprara (lower body) and Elijah Zeise (ankle). On offense, Dontez Ford, the team's most experienced wide receiver, has missed the past four games with a broken collarbone.

The loss of Maddox, a three-year starter who is second on the team in tackles for a loss (six), may force Narduzzi to make some hard decisions at cornerback over the next several weeks. After Virginia (2-3, 1-0), Pitt plays three ranked teams — No. 17 Virginia Tech, No. 16 Miami and No. 3 Clemson — that have a combined 14-2 record.

Redshirt freshman Dane Jackson replaced Maddox on Saturday, but Narduzzi took the liberty of adding freshmen cornerbacks Damar Hamlin and Therran Coleman to the depth chart that he released to the media Monday.

Neither has played this season, and Narduzzi probably is hoping to redshirt them and keep both in the program for an extra year. But Pitt is only one game out of first place in the ACC Coastal, and it needs as many good players for its struggling secondary as it can get ready to play. Pitt is 123rd of 128 FBS teams and 13th in the 14-team ACC in passing yards allowed per game (302.3).

“Damar and Therran, for really the last three weeks, have been battling back and forth,” Narduzzi said. “They are just getting closer. They're freshmen. We'll see how much closer they are.”

Narduzzi downplayed the appearance of the two freshmen on the depth chart, not wanting to reveal any in-house secrets to Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall.

“I thought I'd mess with you guys and throw them on there and shake it up a little bit,” he said. “They've been (in the mix at practice) all year.

“You can put them on the depth chart all you want.”

Narduzzi won't say much more about the situation as he prepares for Virginia. Generally speaking, he said when an opposing coach knows there's a backup in the starting lineup, “He thinks he can go after him.”

But Narduzzi wasn't reluctant to talk about Jackson, who probably will be the first choice to replace Maddox at Virginia.

“It wasn't like he was tentative,” Narduzzi said. “The first play he came in was a run his way, and he stuck his head and dove in the pile and got in on the action.

“You didn't see a timid guy out there, going, ‘Oh, my gosh. What am I going to do?'

“I was impressed with what he did.”

Notes: Offensive tackle Brian O'Neill and kicker Chris Blewitt, who scored the first and last points against Georgia Tech, were named the ACC Offensive Lineman and Specialist of the Week. … The game was the 12th of 19 under Narduzzi decided by eight or fewer points. Pitt is 7-5 in those games.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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