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Pitt

Here are three ways Pitt can kick-start its ACC championship quest

| Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, 10:54 p.m.
Penn State’s Danny Dalton picks up yardage past Pitt’s Dennis Briggs (20) and Elijah Zeise during the first quarter Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Penn State’s Danny Dalton picks up yardage past Pitt’s Dennis Briggs (20) and Elijah Zeise during the first quarter Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Heinz Field.

When Pat Narduzzi told a room full of friends and donors that his team will be in Charlotte, N.C., later this year for the ACC Championship game, he meant every word.

Sure, it was a bold remark by a brash coach, one that could eventually backfire, but he’s had his team’s back since the start of training camp. A good coach believes in his players until they give him reason to do otherwise.

That’s what makes Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech at Heinz Field so intriguing. Pitt needs to put its ACC Coastal title chase on firm ground early by defeating Georgia Tech, a team with just as many holes as Pitt.

While Pitt was giving up 51 points to No. 11 Penn State, Georgia Tech allowed 49 to South Florida, including two kickoff returns for touchdowns.

The loser will insist it still has a chance to win a championship, but in reality, it will have none.

How can Pitt avoid disaster? Here are three ways:

1. Don’t get too comfortable knowing Georgia Tech running back KirVonte Benson is out for the season with a knee injury.

Coach Paul Johnson always recruits a stable full of running backs who can take a sliver of daylight and turn it into a 20-yard gain.

Backup Jordan Mason, 6-foot-1, 212 pounds, is 4 inches taller and 4 pounds heavier than Benson, and already has rung up 180 yards in two games.

But Pitt has an edge in experience and familiarity with Georgia Tech’s Flexbone Spread Option offense. Everyone on Pitt’s front seven has seen it, defended it and even stopped it at times over the years.

Narduzzi expects senior linebacker Elijah Zeise to lead the way.

“Elijah made some great plays last year chasing down the quarterback (TaQuon Marshall),” he said. “And (Zeise) is bigger and faster this year.”

2. Take command of the game early.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett insisted Pitt stood toe-to-toe with Penn State in the first half Saturday. “I don’t care what anybody says,” he said.

That’s the type of attitude that can win games.

If holder/punter Kirk Christodoulou had made clean catches of a few snaps in the rain, Pitt might have been ahead at halftime. The Panthers still would have lost, but not by 45 points.

Georgia Tech’s defense isn’t as athletic as the unit Penn State brought to Heinz Field. So, why can’t Pitt use its running game to seize control of the game, make Pickett’s job easier, get a little lead and put Georgia Tech on the defensive?

It might be as easy as catching a punt snap.

3.Open up the passing game to allow the explosive play-makers we’ve heard so much about to explode.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has said he wants to expand Pickett’s range by throwing the ball downfield with more frequency. Freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis and more experienced pass catchers Tre Tipton, Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench have the speed to get a secondary’s attention. It’s time to use them.

Take a few shots 20 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. Even if those plays don’t always work, it may loosen up running lanes for Qadree Ollison, who’s already on a nearly 1,200-yard pace.

Of course, the key is better play on the offensive line, which can’t allow four sacks again. Pickett can’t see downfield when he’s constantly running out of the pocket.

A battle to watch: Pitt center Jimmy Morrissey against Georgia Tech nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson. If Pitt’s former walk-on can neutralize one of Georgia Tech’s best defenders, that will set the right tone.

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