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Gorman: Max Browne the right choice for Pitt

Kevin Gorman
| Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, 6:33 p.m.
Pitt quarterback Max Browne throws during practice Tuessday, Aug. 8, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt quarterback Max Browne throws during practice Tuessday, Aug. 8, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Max Browne being named the starting quarterback for the Pitt Panthers seemed inevitable from the moment he announced his transfer.

That was in December, a day after offensive coordinator Matt Canada left for LSU. Browne saw something USC no longer offered him: an obvious opportunity to be the starter.

First, he had to beat out Ben DiNucci, a Pine-Richland graduate whom Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi described as “night and day” better than last season in a “long-fought battle from spring ball to camp.”

Here's why Browne getting the nod was a no-brainer: The Panthers open at Heinz Field against FCS national runner-up Youngstown State, then play at No. 6 Penn State and return home against No. 10 Oklahoma State.

Believe it or not, that's a downgrade from Browne's first three games last year at USC.

“That's a great point,” Browne said. “We're playing two top-10 teams this year, and somehow I had a harder start last year. That's wild.

“But that's two big-time opponents. Same thing I had last year. You learn from it. Any game experience is huge. With two early tests, it's good for our team and good for myself.”

It doesn't get any bigger than making your first career college start against the nation's No. 1 team and defending national champion, Alabama, as Browne did for Southern Cal last year.

To say that game, a 52-6 loss, didn't go well for Browne would be an understatement. The Trojans went without scoring a touchdown for the first time in a season opener since 1960 and suffered their most lopsided loss since a 51-0 defeat to Notre Dame in 1966.

The easy thing to do is blame the quarterback, and Browne got his share after going 14 of 29 for 101 yards with an interception.

Browne bounced back in his next start, a 45-7 victory over Utah State in which he was 23 for 30 with two touchdowns and an interception.

After Browne completed 18 of 28 passes for 191 yards without a touchdown in a 27-10 loss to No. 7 Stanford — dropping USC to 1-2 for the first time since 2001 — freshman Sam Darnold replaced him as the starter.

Darnold would lead the Trojans to nine consecutive victories, including a Rose Bowl win over Penn State, and Tuesday was named to the AP preseason All-America team.

Not only should that serve as major motivation for Browne, but Narduzzi called his starting experience a “major factor” in the decision to appoint him starter.

“You've got a guy that's lined up in big games,” Narduzzi said. “He's been in that game.”

DiNucci, by contrast, hasn't even played a full game. He was 3 of 9 for 16 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions in late relief of Nathan Peterman in the Pinstripe Bowl.

That should have taught Narduzzi to get his backup more playing time during the season, something DiNucci needs if he's to eventually succeed Browne at Pitt. Some might not like the idea of a graduate transfer showing up in time for spring drills and then bumping the backup for the starting job, but this decision is about the here and now.

“Ben's done an incredible job,” Narduzzi said. “Max we feel like can win faster for us. The experience and just being there before and the little things you see in running the football team on a day-to-day basis.”

And a fast start is critical for the Panthers, especially with safety Jordan Whitehead and middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis suspended for the first three games. The offense could have to carry this team once again, especially against preseason All-Americans like Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki and Oklahoma State receiver James Washington.

No wonder Narduzzi went with the “smooth” quarterback who never gets rattled.

Pitt needs someone who has the maturity and the motivation to handle the pressure of playing top-10 teams.

Browne has been in those games, which makes him the perfect pick for the Panthers.

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

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