Ohio game will help answer some tough questions about Pitt
Every coach and even some reasonable fans will tell you that it’s lunacy to declare the second game of the season a must-win.
Such is the case for the Pitt Panthers (0-1), who welcome Ohio into Heinz Field on Saturday. A loss would stir up a fan base that is already restless, but it wouldn’t cancel the final 10 games of the season.
Dropping to 0-2 — a Pitt team hasn’t done that since 2012 — would have many critics assuming 0-4 is right around the corner, with No. 15 Penn State in Happy Valley and No. 18 Central Florida next up on back-to-back Saturdays.
That question only can be answered by the next 11 games. For now, here are five things we do know:
1. Kenny Pickett will have an easier time with Ohio’s pass defense.
It’s not a stretch to state Virginia has better athletes in its secondary than what Pitt’s quarterback will see Saturday.
In its opener against Rhode Island, an FCS school, Ohio gave up 291 yards through the air. That put the Bobcats 100th out of 129 Division I teams in pass defense.
Pickett and the teammates he depends on did not play well in the opener. It’s time to make good on all that optimism that swirled around training camp this summer.
Pickett will make his 17th start at quarterback. If Rhode Island can do it (and no disrespect to coach Pat Narduzzi’s alma mater), Pickett should be properly equipped and prepared to do the same thing.
2. Pitt is going nowhere without a running game.
The offensive game plan against Virginia did not lean on the run as Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple sought balance. Plus, Narduzzi said he was concerned about Virginia stacking the box.
As a result, Pickett gained only 4 fewer yards with his legs (not counting sacks) than running backs A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley Jr., who totaled 48.
How about sending this message?
“We’re running the football right at you. Try to stop us.”
If the backs and blockers are good enough, that just might work.
3. Paris Ford is poised to make an impact on all three downs.
Ford, the first-year starting strong safety, came off the field on most passing downs against Virginia, but those limitations will end Saturday, Narduzzi said.
“Based on what Paris did last week in normal downs, he deserves to take that next step,” he said.
Explaining why Ford, only a sophomore, was not given full responsibilities last week, Narduzzi said, “It’s slowly giving him more duties. I never want to put somebody in a bad position where it’s not his fault, it’s our fault.
“If I know he’s not going to execute as well in that, I just want to give him bits and pieces.
“And that’s everybody. I’m just not talking about Paris.”
Ford is exhibiting close to the same level of athleticism the Tampa Bay Bucs’ Jordan Whitehead brought to the Pitt secondary for most of the 2015-17 seasons. Taking one of the most talented players on the team off the field one-third of the time is a sure route to 0-2.
4. There is good leadership on defense.
And Pitt will need it.
Losing defensive linemen Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp puts a dent in Pitt’s depth, but other players are expected to pick up the flag and soldier on. That’s what good teams do.
Pitt has capable replacements on the line — Camp was an ‘or’ starter with Amir Watts, anyway — but more importantly it has several players throughout the defense who have played dozens of meaningful snaps over the years. The injuries are unfortunate, but not an excuse.
5. The 11 a.m. kickoff doesn’t matter.
It’s only one hour earlier than the noon start time considered normal across the nation. By the way, when you see a game start at noon outside the Eastern Time Zone, what time do you think it is there?
Pitt started practice every morning at 10 during training camp. Players are conditioned to go to bed at an appropriate time and get up early.
Fans may not be similarly wired, however.
“I don’t like it for the fans,” Narduzzi said, showing he knows how they think. “For our kids, I actually like it better than a night game.
“We go to class at night, but in the morning we play ball. Sometimes, I think we play better in the morning than we do at night. Maybe that’s all in my mind.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .