Delaware latest FCS force to test Pitt, Pat Narduzzi
Let’s be clear about something before Pitt fans worry about Delaware authoring an upset Saturday at Heinz Field.
Pat Narduzzi never has lost to an FCS team (4-0), although victories against Youngstown State were one-score games — 45-37 (2015) and 28-21 (‘17) in overtime.
Paul Chryst, Pitt’s coach before Narduzzi, lost his first game with the Panthers to Youngstown State, 31-17, in 2012, the day he suspended six players hours before kickoff.
But he did defeat Delaware, 62-0, two years later.
Since then, Delaware coach Danny Rocco, a Fox Chapel graduate, has transformed the Blue Hens into an FCS force.
Rocco was a Penn State linebacker in 1979-1980, transferred to Wake Forest and has been coaching since 1984, including the past 14 as coach at Richmond, Liberty and Delaware. He’s been at Delaware since 2017 after winning four Big South and two Colonial Athletic Association championships.
This year, the Blue Hens come to Heinz Field ranked 19th in the FCS Coaches Poll. That means — if you’re being intentionally vague — Pitt will have played four ranked teams among its first five opponents.
1. Delaware isn’t bad, but a Pitt loss wouldn’t be good.
Sophomore safety Paris Ford made a simple, yet significant, point when asked about the Delaware game.
“It’s football,” he said. “Anybody can be beat. We try to treat every opponent like they’re a top 25 team. We respect Delaware just like we respect UCF.”
Pitt athletes have said the same thing for many years, and then flopped against a weak opponent. This year’s team might be different.
It’s coming off impressive efforts against ranked teams in Penn State and Central Florida and could be on the verge of sneaking into the Top 25 by the first week of October.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 60 of 97 passes for 596 yards in those games.
The defense is second in the ACC in sacks (18).
Then, there’s this: The 2019 Pitt team is the first at the school with a fifth-year coach since Dave Wannstedt won 10 games in ‘09. Stability matters.
Let’s see what happens when an FCS team gets in the way.
2. Pitt is fast.
Todd Graham was onto something when he walked around the Pitt practice facility in 2011, talking speed, speed, speed.
Pitt has it this year on defense like never before, especially at linebacker.
Former safety Phil Campbell III already has a sack, interception and two forced fumbles and is third on the team in tackles (18). And he only shares the star (outside) linebacker position with Cam Bright, who has 3½ tackles for a loss and a quarterback hurry.
Linebackers Saleem Brightwell, Kylan Johnson, Elias Reynolds and Chase Pine also can run and hit. The depth bodes well for the rest of the season.
3. Special teams: Good and bad
Through four games, Pitt allowed a punt return for a touchdown, averaged only 3.9 yards on punt returns that weren’t blocked and missed five field goal attempts.
But Aaron Mathews’ blocked punt that linebacker Wendell Davis returned for a touchdown helped Pitt beat UCF.
The big story, though, is sophomore punter Kirk Christodoulou, who is 28th in the nation with a 44.8-yard average while knocking down nine of 21 inside the 20-yard line. There have been 10 fair catches and no touchbacks.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .