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Five storylines for Pitt vs. Rice: Perhaps right opponent at right time for Panthers

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, 7:24 p.m.
Pitt  quarterback Max Browne walks off the field with his head down after not getting a third down conversion against Oklahoma State in the first half Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Pitt quarterback Max Browne walks off the field with his head down after not getting a third down conversion against Oklahoma State in the first half Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.

Pitt finally will play a team with a losing record when Rice (1-3) of Conference USA visits Heinz Field on Saturday.

Pitt is 1-3 after losing to No. 4 Penn State (4-0), No. 14 Oklahoma State (3-1) and Georgia Tech (2-1). Even the FCS's Youngstown State, the only team Pitt has defeated, is 2-1.

Pitt has played Rice twice all-time, but not many people connected to the program were alive to see those games. Rice won both, 14-7 and 21-13, in 1950 and 1951.

Over the past four seasons, Pitt is 3-0 against Conference USA teams.

Here are five storylines to watch:

Does Pitt have a quarterback it can trust?

There's been no sign of that, which is a bad sign.

Coach Pat Narduzzi's last look at Ben DiNucci in the Georgia Tech game was a fumbled handoff recovered by the defense. That was the sixth series without a first down, all run by DiNucci.

The last look at Max Browne was unimpressive, but not bad. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 88 yards — in garbage time with Pitt trailing 35-17 and Georgia Tech's defense largely uninterested. But he was smooth and mistake-free.

Don't be surprised if Narduzzi goes back to Browne, but he'll need a line that doesn't get pushed into the backfield, receivers who can get open and backs who hit the right hole.

Neither quarterback has had that luxury on a consistent basis.

Does Pitt have an offensive line it can trust?

Again, no. But maybe there's a solution.

Find five guys and stick with them. Here's a suggestion, left to right: Brian O'Neill, Alex Officer, Jimmy Morrissey, Brandon Hodges and Alex Bookser.

It's hard to believe Bookser isn't the team's best tackle (after O'Neill). And it's equally hard to believe Hodges isn't the best fit at right guard when Bookser's at tackle.

The line is the biggest disappointment of the first four games, which is surprising considering it can't use youth as an excuse.

Will players start questioning themselves?

We have been told for weeks this team has strong fiber, good character and a hunger for championships. But it also has a three-game losing streak.

The last time that happened to Pitt, former coach Paul Chryst couldn't keep it together and it lost four of its last six games.

This is Narduzzi's first bout with adversity. If his players are tough enough to win that battle, can their coach keep them that way over eight games?

A bad Rice team is not a good test, but beating the three-touchdown point spread would be a nice optic.

The defense needs to gain confidence

Rice might have come along at the right time. The injury-riddled Owls have scored seven, three and seven points in their losses and are 118th among 129 FBS teams in total offense (292 yards per game).

The return of safety Jordan Whitehead gives Pitt a player offenses can respect. There seems to be some buzz about a Whitehead/Damar Hamlin safety tandem that has athleticism and on-field savvy in abundance. They won't be able to prove it against Rice, but it's a start.

Running backs need to make an impact

There was a lot of talk in training camp about Qadree Ollison, Chawntez Moss and Darrin Hall, but together they are averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

Help is on the way. Fullback George Aston is drawing glowing reviews for his quick recovery from a lower-extremity injury, and he'll be given a chance to jump-start the offense against Rice.

Where would Pitt have been last season without Aston's 10 touchdowns, scored in a variety of ways? Without Aston, former offensive coordinator Matt Canada might still be here.

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

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