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Kevin Gorman: Pat Narduzzi can't allow Pitt to falter after another loss to Penn State

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, 8:13 p.m.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi cheers on his team against Albany in the first half Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi cheers on his team against Albany in the first half Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Coaches are creatures of habit, and habits become routines. So it was no surprise Pat Narduzzi had no plans to change the routine of Pitt’s preparation following its 51-6 loss to Penn State.

Not only did the Panthers suffer their most lopsided loss in the Narduzzi era but also their worst in the rivalry since 1968. Not how Pitt wanted to head into Saturday’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech at Heinz Field.

So I asked Narduzzi how he gets his team to recalibrate after a nonconference loss to a rival to focus on a conference game critical to Pitt’s stated goal of winning the Coastal Division and his prediction of the Panthers playing for the ACC championship in Charlotte.

His answer: Change nothing.

“If you said, ‘This is first ACC week’ and, all of a sudden, go out there and do something different and shock the system, I think that’s the wrong way to go about it,” Narduzzi said. “They know the routine every week. They’re used to the routine. You don’t change what you do routine-wise, I don’t think.

“They all count the same. … You can’t build any of these up more than the others. You can identify what it is: This is an opener. This is a rivalry game. The next one is an ACC game. But I don’t think you say one is bigger than the other.”

Make no mistake: This is the biggest game on Pitt’s schedule. That’s something the Panthers can say every week, but this is where history comes in to play. The Panthers are 0-2 in each of the past two seasons following the Penn State game, losing to Oklahoma State and North Carolina in 2016 and Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech last year.

That could mean something. It could mean nothing. It’s a small sample.

“Is that what it is or was it Oklahoma State is pretty good?” Narduzzi said of the 59-21 loss last Sept. 16. “It was a top-10 team last year, and we weren’t. I don’t know. That’s what I would say. If you start to look at those things, we could come up with a lot of things.”

What Narduzzi must prevent Pitt from allowing it to affect the rest of the season. The Panthers have one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules, with remaining games against No. 18 UCF and No. 8 Notre Dame, so nobody was expecting an undefeated campaign.

But the beatdown by Penn State was alarming and deflating, one that saw the game spiral out of control for Pitt in the second half. How the Panthers respond will help determine whether they can be contenders for the Coastal Division and, ultimately, the ACC championship.

If Pitt wants to win its division and conference championships, it has to beat teams like Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Syracuse, Duke and Virginia. The Panthers lost to Georgia Tech, 35-17, last year, only to see the Yellowjackets finish 5-6 overall, 4-4 in conference play.

Yet Pitt almost beat Virginia Tech on the road and upset No. 2 Miami at home. The Panthers have to prove they can play with that type of passion and precision on a consistent basis in conference play.

Narduzzi doesn’t anticipate a letdown. He called Paul Johnson an “offensive genius,” and knows the Georgia Tech coach treats football games like a chess match. His offense is always one move ahead, anticipating every adjustment his opponent makes. Johnson beat Pitt in double overtime with Navy in 2007, but Georgia Tech lost to Narduzzi and the Panthers in 2015 and ’16.

“I think our guys are locked into Georgia Tech, and that’s where they better be or we’ll have problems Saturday,” Narduzzi said. “It won’t be easy.”

No, but Georgia Tech showed both how dangerous its triple-option offense can be by piling up 419 rushing yards, led by quarterbacks TaQuon Marshall (113) and Tobias Oliver (97), in a 49-38 loss to USF last week. But the Yellowjackets don’t have the passing attack to make a comeback, so it’s important Pitt get a lead and build on it.

That makes this a key bounce-back game for Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, whose passing struggled in the wet conditions against Penn State. Pickett has a lot to prove, as do the Panthers.

If Narduzzi must change anything, it’s the outcome. He focused on the routine but feigned ignorance about the history.

But coaches know as much as anyone that history tends to repeat itself if you don’t change.

For the second year in a row, Pitt is coming off a loss to Penn State. For the second year in a row, the Panthers allowed 50-plus points the week before they played Georgia Tech.

“If you hadn’t mentioned that, I don’t know. And if I don’t know, do you think our kids really know or care?” Narduzzi said. “Our focus is on Georgia Tech. We’re not worrying about what happened in 1952. Our kids forgot last Saturday. They’ve forgotten a lot of things. …”

Pitt has to hope he’s right, considering its recent history.

It’s Narduzzi’s job to make sure it doesn’t become routine.

Get the latest news about Pitt football and all things Panthers athletics .

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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