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Analysis: Pitt has plenty of questions as ACC play begins

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, 5:27 p.m.

Looking back on the first three games of the season, Pitt had no business playing two top-10 teams so early in a season of change.

Inexperience on defense has shown up in the lack of a pass rush and poor tackling in the secondary. Even coach Pat Narduzzi admitted the loss of second-team All-ACC safety Jordan Whitehead to a three-game suspension hurt the team.

Narduzzi tried everything against Oklahoma State, but the talent gulf between the teams was too wide. When safeties and linebackers helped in pass coverage, the Cowboys ran effectively. When Pitt blitzed, Mason Rudolph threw for 252 yards and four touchdowns. That's the third-most yards and tied for the most TDs by a Power 5 quarterback against a blitz going back to the start of last season, according to ESPN.

“There are only so many things you can do,” Narduzzi said. “And matchup-wise, it wasn't a good matchup.”

On offense, Pitt has not found a way to replace quarterback Nathan Peterman, running back James Conner and offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson.

Yards gained rushing are down 35 percent compared to the first three games last season. When Max Browne and Ben DiNucci can't find a way to complete the deep ball, it puts up road blocks elsewhere because the defense doesn't respect Pitt's passing game.

Then, there's the question of who will be the starter Saturday at Georgia Tech when Pitt opens ACC play.

Does Narduzzi pick Browne, who has yet to develop a reliable connection with his wide receivers despite winning the job in training camp? Or will it be DiNucci, who is more mobile but matches Browne in one undesirable way (three turnovers)? Browne, who was yanked as the starter after three games last season at USC, didn't even make it that far at Pitt. But he will remain a threat to the starting job even if Narduzzi picks DiNucci to start at Georgia Tech.

The theme of Pitt's post-game remarks after the 59-21 loss to Oklahoma State was the season starts now. Pitt is 1-2, but eight of its final nine games are against ACC opponents, and only the last two — No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 14 Miami — are ranked.

“These last two (losses) don't affect what our goal is,” DiNucci said.

Pitt's challenge becomes taking advantage of a softer schedule. In the case of Georgia Tech, the opponent might be easier but not easy.

The Yellow Jackets' triple option is difficult to defend and requires thought, discipline and sure tackling. Can Pitt's young defense handle it?

“I think we missed more tackles (Saturday) than we normally miss,” Narduzzi said.

If that continues, Georgia Tech can make a defense pay a stiff price.

The key will be controlling quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who is second in the ACC in rushing — ahead of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. Marshall has carried 57 times in two games while averaging 137 yards, but he also threw three touchdown passes against Jacksonville State.

Pitt is 2-2 against Georgia Tech since joining the ACC. Narduzzi is 2-0, but the Panthers needed two late field goals from Chris Blewitt — one from 56 yards — to win the past two games.

Georgia Tech (1-1) played two games in six days to start this season, losing to then-No. 25 Tennessee, 42-41, in double overtime and beating Jacksonville State, 37-10. Saturday's game at Central Florida was cancelled because of the effects of Hurricane Irma. The ACC Coastal remains a mystery. North Carolina has played the only conference game, a 45-37 loss to Louisville. Everyone else is 0-0.

“Moving forward,” wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes said, “we are going to prepare like we always do and intensify going into ACC play.”

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

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