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Gorman: Spoiler alert: Pitt football has to take it to next level

Kevin Gorman
| Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, 7:36 p.m.
Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt (12) celebrates with teammate Ryan Winslow after kicking the winning field goal against eventual national champion Clemson last season.
Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt (12) celebrates with teammate Ryan Winslow after kicking the winning field goal against eventual national champion Clemson last season.
Pitt quarterback Max Browne calls signals during practice Tuessday, Aug. 8, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt quarterback Max Browne calls signals during practice Tuessday, Aug. 8, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Pitt was perfect to play the spoiler role last season, with victories over Penn State and Clemson that brought the university national notoriety.

The Panthers were proud to boast that they beat the ACC and Big Ten champions — and were the only team to defeat the eventual national champion Tigers.

If you think Pat Narduzzi is beating his chest about those wins, think again. The third-year Pitt coach is singing a different tune.

“I want to win an ACC championship,” Narduzzi said Tuesday. “I would gladly give up the Penn State and Clemson wins to win the ACC championship.”

That's what you should love about Narduzzi: Nothing but being the best is good enough for him, and that attitude is proving contagious at Pitt's practice facility on the South Side.

“Anyone in this building would trade those wins to be ACC champion,” Pitt redshirt junior tackle Brian O'Neill said. “It's anyone's game in the Coastal Division. It's right in front of us. We've got to go get it. No one is going to hand it to us.”

That's why Narduzzi implemented “Take It” as the team motto.

“It is about taking the next step. The two big victories we had put a target on your back,” Narduzzi said. “The ‘Take It' is more about the losses than the wins. It's such a game of little things and how close we are to winning every game. Our kids know how close we were to winning every football game.”

Remember, Pitt finished 8-5 for the second consecutive season.

It wasn't long ago that eight wins was something to get excited about. That's no longer the case. This Pitt coach is holding the Panthers to a higher standard. Need an example? Narduzzi is a voting member for the USA Today Coaches poll, for which Pitt received 45 votes. Surprisingly, Narduzzi said he did not cast a ballot for his Panthers “because we're not there yet.”

“When you talk about last season, people hang their hats on the Penn State and Clemson victories,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Ben DiNucci said, “but, in the back of your mind, you're still like, ‘Hey, we were 8-5.' We were 11 points away from being 11-2. That's a completely different outlook.”

True, Pitt lost at Oklahoma State by six, at North Carolina by two and to Virginia Tech at home by three. The lone lopsided loss came at Miami, 51-28. But the 42-39 victory over Penn State at Heinz Field and the 43-42 victory over Clemson in Death Valley made the season seem like a resounding success.

On the 10th anniversary of Pitt's biggest upset victory — the 13-9 win at West Virginia, when the 28.5-point underdog Panthers ruined the Mountaineers' national championship hopes — it's refreshing to see and hear a Pitt football coach who isn't satisfied with playing the spoiler role but rather demands greatness.

Not that the Penn State and Clemson victories didn't resonate.

I asked quarterback Max Browne, a graduate transfer from Southern Cal, what he knew about Pitt football before last season. “Not much,” said Browne, who grew up on Pac-12 football. “I knew about James Conner and Nathan Peterman. But those were national victories. Those wins were impressive.”

Browne knows something about playing under pressure to win. Southern Cal won 10 games last season, despite losing three of its first four. Browne was benched after the third game, a 27-10 loss to Stanford, in favor of freshman Sam Darnold. The Trojans would win eight consecutive games, then beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

“At SC, pressure is super high,” Browne said. “Every loss is catastrophic. There's no upsets, but, with that said, there's big wins — and bad losses. At Pitt, we're trying to get to that level. That's how it should be here.”

Talking that way at Pitt shouldn't be a sign of nostalgia. The Panthers should be shooting for their first double-digit regular-season win total since 1981 and their first outright conference title ever, even if they fall short of the goals.

Spoiler alert: There's no Conner or Peterman on this roster. The Panthers start the season with FCS runner-up Youngstown State, followed by preseason No. 6 Penn State and No. 11 Oklahoma State — all three games without one of their top players, junior safety Jordan Whitehead — yet Narduzzi is using motivational methods such as breaking down practice on the chant, “ACC champs!”

“Taking it to the next level (is harder),” Narduzzi said, “because a target is on your back, and I have to do it with different guys. That's the nature of college football. You have to do it with a new team.”

A new team, with a new mentality. We'll know Pitt football truly has arrived when it trades celebrating upsets and serving in the spoiler role for a conference championship.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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