Pat Narduzzi was so thrilled to learn he’s undefeated in his first four season openers you would have thought someone switched Pitt’s colors back to Navy and Vegas gold.
“I didn’t know that,” Narduzzi said with a sigh, grumbling his gratitude. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Forgive the Pitt football coach for his underwhelming response, as he’s aware the Panthers aren’t opening against the likes of FCS programs Youngstown State, Villanova or Albany.
The schedule makers did Pitt no favors, starting the season against not just a conference foe but one picked by the media to win the ACC Coastal Division. Virginia is a 2½-point favorite for its visit to Heinz Field on Saturday night.
Now, it’s worth noting Pitt is 5-1 against Virginia in ACC play, 4-0 against the Cavaliers under Narduzzi and that the Panthers have won all four of those games by double-digit margins. But Pitt hasn’t opened the season against an ACC opponent since 2013, a 41-13 loss to eventual national champion Florida State at Heinz Field.
Not coincidentally, that’s the last time Pitt lost an opener.
“This opener is going to be a little bit different,” Narduzzi said. “… I think opening up in the ACC is special, I really do. It gets the kids’ motors going a little further. They’re not thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve got this game.’ Those last four openers, we may be 4-0, but we didn’t play Virginia. … They know what’s on the line.”
What’s on the line is something greater than where Pitt will start in ACC standings. The Panthers are facing their own history: They have never gone undefeated at home in a season since Heinz Field opened in 2001. Home field hasn’t delivered a decided advantage for Pitt football in nearly four decades. The Panthers haven’t won every home game in a season since 1980, when Jackie Sherrill’s team went 5-0 at Pitt Stadium for the third consecutive year.
So Narduzzi made sense when talking about how there’s no comparison between this past Friday’s dress rehearsal at Heinz Field and playing a game there this coming Saturday. It’s the same sport but an entirely different ballgame.
“When the lights turn on at Heinz Field at night, sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Narduzzi said. “When things hit the fan on Saturday night, you never know how the kids are going to react.”
Those who follow Pitt know exactly what he’s talking about. Panthers fans have been treated to so many disappointing displays that they have become conditioned to expect the worst and hope for the best at home games.
It’s not just that the Panthers lose at home. It’s how they lose.
Let me count the crazy ways: Pitt lost to Texas A&M in the swinging gate fiasco in 2002, to Navy by going for a touchdown instead of a field goal in overtime in 2007 and to Cincinnati in the final minute after blowing a 21-point lead and botching the hold on an extra point with the 2009 Big East title on the line.
What’s worse, Pitt has suffered demoralizing defeats in the opener too many times, from a blowout loss to Notre Dame in Dave Wannstedt’s debut in ‘05 to a double-digit loss to Youngstown State in Paul Chryst’s debut in ‘12. The goodwill built by their 2007 upset at No. 2 West Virginia was blown in the ‘08 opening loss to Bowling Green. The excitement of joining the ACC was fleeting after the lopsided loss to Florida State in Pitt’s conference debut.
If Pitt can reverse that trend and win all of its home games — and, I know, that’s a big if — it could be the start of a special season. The Panthers play four of their first five games at Heinz Field — they visit Penn State on Sept. 14 — and a strong start could propel Pitt into ACC championship contention again.
“With seven home games, it’s obviously real important,” Narduzzi said. “We put a premium on home football games here for the City of Pittsburgh. When we walk into Heinz Field, it’s important that we play our best. … To play well in front of our home fans in the City of Pittsburgh is obviously something that our kids all look forward to.”
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem on the surface. Pitt was 5-1 at home last season, its lone loss to Penn State. An undefeated home record would require the Panthers to beat Virginia, Ohio, UCF, Delaware, Miami, North Carolina and Boston College. Pitt showed it can beat a top-5 opponent at Heinz Field, upsetting the undefeated Hurricanes in the 2017 season finale.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Pitt can’t win all of its home games unless it wins the opener against Virginia. That makes this one a little bit different, a little bit more important. The Panthers know what’s on the line.
When the lights turn on for Pitt at Heinz Field, it would be nice to know what you’re going to get.
That would give Panthers fans something to savor.