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Pat Narduzzi suggests Pitt could be 'boring' against Youngstown State

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, 6:45 p.m.

The question didn't surprise or displease Pat Narduzzi, but it did cross the line.

During the Pitt coach's news conference Monday — six days before the opener Saturday against Youngstown State — he was asked a general question about his game plan.

“Do you open it up,” the reporter began, “or do you try to keep it vanilla because you don't want to show too much because of what you have coming in the next few weeks is considerable?”

To a coach, nothing is further off limits than what he has planned for the next opponent. The reporter might have had better luck asking how much money is in the Narduzzi family 401K.

“You want me to tell Bo (Pitt's game plan) right now?” Narduzzi asked with some sarcasm.

Pitt opens its season Saturday at Heinz Field against an FCS opponent for the 14th time this century and the fourth year in a row. Youngstown State, which lost in the FCS title game last season under former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, is a familiar foe that has not been a pushover for Pitt.

With big games upcoming against No. 6 Penn State and No. 10 Oklahoma State the following two weeks, Narduzzi doesn't want to exhaust his entire playbook. He doesn't want to lose, either.

Pitt is 14-1 all-time against FCS foes, but the only games fans remember are the embarrassments:

• Who could forget having to take Furman into overtime in 2004 before winning, 41-38?

• Pitt struggled against Maine in 2011, before surviving, 35-29.

• The next season, former coach Paul Chryst lost to Youngstown State, 31-17, hours after suspending six players for the game, his first at Pitt.

• Narduzzi, who came to Pitt with an impressive pedigree as a defensive coach, defeated YSU, 45-37, in 2015. A crowd of 49,969 was there to witness Narduzzi's first game.

Even in last year's game — a 28-7 victory against Villanova — coaches held back part of the game plan, an understandable and time-honored prerogative.

“We might be a little bit boring, I don't know,” Narduzzi said of the upcoming game plan. “Put it this way: There are some things we're going to hold, but we're going out to win that football game. That's what it comes down to.”

To establish itself as an ACC contender and one that looks like it can stand toe-to-toe with Penn State and Oklahoma State, Pitt needs a decisive victory against YSU. Yet, under Narduzzi, only one of Pitt's 16 victories has come by more than three touchdowns: 56-14 against Duke last season. Of Pitt's first 13 FCS games, five have been lost or won by eight points or fewer.

“This is big game,” Narduzzi said. “You only get 12 opportunities. I want them to come out and play like they can.”

Narduzzi said Youngstown — “on a piece of paper” — is a more difficult opponent than Villanova last year.

“They're a top-10 team right now (eighth in the FCS coaches poll),” he said. “Villanova is not the type of team that's bringing in a ton of transfers that you don't know who they are. The history back when (former YSU coach) Jim Tressel was the head coach there, they brought a ton of transfers in and had some success with them. So they're on that same track.”

Narduzzi said Pitt is a far different team than the one that two years ago allowed YSU quarterback Hunter Wells to throw for 274 yards and running back Jody Webb to amass 127.

Wells is a senior and will make his 28th career start Saturday. Narduzzi said YSU offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery once told him Wells (6-foot-5, 215) is a “Ben Roethelisberger-type quarterback.”

If Wells is better than he was — last year, he helped lead his team to a 12-4 record and the FCS title game, where it lost to James Madison — Narduzzi believes his defense has improved, too.

“Defensively, I (say), ‘Golly, we've come a long way.'

“When you look at your first game and your last game, what you're doing, how you're doing it, how fast you're playing. We didn't play very fast last time. We didn't get lined up as well as you'd like.

“Twenty-six games later, you say, ‘Wow.' ”

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

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