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Pitt's Pat Narduzzi on Browne: 'Max is back,' but defense must solve Syracuse

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, 1:24 p.m.
Pitt quarterback Max Browne scrambles against Georgia Tech linebacker Victor Alexander during the second half Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Atlanta.
Pitt quarterback Max Browne scrambles against Georgia Tech linebacker Victor Alexander during the second half Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Atlanta.
Pitt's Reggie Mitchell celebrates with Dane Jackson after Jackson had a pick-six against Syracuse in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Reggie Mitchell celebrates with Dane Jackson after Jackson had a pick-six against Syracuse in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Pitt's Dane Jackson pulls in an interception and returns it for a touchdown against Syracuse in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Dane Jackson pulls in an interception and returns it for a touchdown against Syracuse in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.

The uncertainty and secrecy that surrounded Pitt's quarterback question the past two weeks are gone.

“Max is back, and we have to keep him that way,” coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Max Browne, who was named ACC offensive back of the week after throwing for 410 yards and four touchdowns with an 88 percent completion rate against Rice, will start Saturday at Syracuse.

Which is good news for Browne, bad (but not unexpected) for backup Ben DiNucci and, perhaps, a relief for Narduzzi, who can concentrate on fixing that defense.

If you're going to make a list of problems that plagued Pitt (2-3) over the first five games, defense outranks offense. Pitt is 103rd in the nation in total defense (433.4 yards allowed per game). At least the offense cracked the top 100 at 95th (359 yards per game).

After catching a break from Rice's struggling passing game and playing run-happy Georgia Tech the previous week, Pitt's secondary gets a major test against Syracuse.

Syracuse has the two most prolific collegiate pass catchers on the North American continent — Steve Ishmael, who leads the nation with 10.2 receptions per game (51 for 632 yards), and Ervin Phillips, who is third (8.8, 44 for 420). Hawaii's John Ursua is second (9.3).

Phillips set Syracuse and ACC records last week, catching 17 passes against N.C. State. It was the most in an FBS game this season.

Could he repeat that effort against Pitt? Unlikely, but Pitt allowed backup Orange quarterback Zack Mahoney to complete 43 of 61 passes for 440 yards last season at Heinz Field in the highest scoring game in FBS history. Pitt won, 76-61, only because it could punch back.

Mahoney has returned to the bench this season, and starter Eric Dungey is 19th in the nation in passing yards per game (287.4).

Narduzzi said he watched video of last year's game 15 times in the past 10 months, but he said there's much more to his preparations than what Syracuse can do. There's also the little detail of what Pitt can't do.

“Not only are you looking at what Syracuse is doing, but hey, what are your weaknesses?” he said. “What are they seeing? They want to get matchups.”

He predicted Syracuse will target Pitt's safeties.

“I would, too,” Narduzzi said. “So, we have got to shore up what we are doing with those guys, how we are doing it.”

Narduzzi may be referring to Pitt's youth at free safety — sophomores Damar Hamlin and Jazzee Stocker and redshirt freshman Bricen Garner.

He appears to have more confidence in his cornerbacks.

“I hope they go after the corners because I feel good about who those guys are,” he said of starters Avonte Maddox and Dane Jackson. “I feel a lot better than we did last year at this game.”

He added previously injured junior cornerback Phillipie Motley, who hasn't played this season, is probable this week. Motley played in nine games last year, but not against Syracuse.

Pitt's pass defense is improving in terms of interceptions. Pitt has six in five games after recording nine in 13 last year.

Most likely, however, the key for Pitt will be scoring enough points to keep up with the Orange's offense. Narduzzi hopes Browne's big game was more a result of his connection with his receivers than Pitt merely having better athletes than Rice.

“One week doesn't define you as a football team or an offense,” he said. “Max has to continue to play well or Ben (DiNucci, the backup) will jump back in there. I trust Max will do that.”

Asked if there will be a leash on Browne if he backslides, Narduzzi said, “We don't put leashes on any of our guys.

“He just needs to keep doing what he's doing. We want him to go out and play football the way it's supposed to be played and we have a lot of faith and trust in him that he can do that.”

Narduzzi said Syracuse likes to pack the box with defenders, taking away the ground game and daring teams to win through the air. Browne must be able to meet that challenge.

“I think (opponents) assume, ‘Let's pack the box and make this quarterback throw the ball.'

“Well, guess what? He did. We hadn't see it thrown like that before.”

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

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