Pitt finished with ‘close,’ hopes to get over the top against No. 15 UCF
There was an argument to be made last week that Pitt could be excused for losing a close game at Penn State.
Coaches and players wouldn’t agree, but it’s a fact Kenny Pickett stepped up, the defense was stout and the Panthers didn’t flinch in front of 108,661 people.
OK, fine, forget all that.
Losing is no longer acceptable, starting Saturday when Pitt welcomes No. 15 Central Florida to Heinz Field.
Pitt (1-2) has started 1-3 in only two of its previous 14 seasons: Dave Wannstedt’s first in 2005 (5-6) and Pat Narduzzi’s only losing team in 2017 (5-7).
A victory would thrust Pitt into the national spotlight — UCF is 28-1 over the past 2¼ seasons — and prove Narduzzi’s defense is for real and has the necessary speed to compete against the nation’s top teams.
This one matters to Pitt just as much as the Penn State game.
Here are five thoughts to consider before the 3:30 p.m. kickoff:
1. UCF has a chip on its shoulder, too
One of the debates over the past two seasons is the worthiness of a non-Power 5 team to land a spot in the nation’s most exclusive club: the College Football Playoff.
UCF was undefeated and won the American Athletic Conference during the 2017 and ‘18 regular seasons. The Knights gained berths in high-profile bowl games, but that’s not what the Knights really wanted. Through it all, they scored at least 31 points in all 29 games.
They also clubbed Power 5 foes Pitt, Maryland and Stanford by margins of 28, 31 and 18 points, respectively.
UCF is 3-0 this season, but only two of 62 voters in the Associated Press pollput UCF in their top 10. Both had them No. 10.
“People have to continue to tell our story,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “Multiple writers are trying to beat that drum for us. We understand if we don’t win, those types of things will go away real quick.”
2. Mack and Ffrench can confuse a defense
Who do you double?
That’s the dilemma offensive coordinator Mark Whipple hopes will befuddle UCF’s secondary.
“You can’t really double Ffrenchy,” he said. “They might try to bracket him in the slot, and then you’re going to get one-on-one on Taysir.”
The Maurice Ffrench-Taysir Mack tandem is second in nation in receptions (45) to Hawaii’s Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward (47). The total for Pitt’s pair is nice, but the combined average yards per reception (10) could stand a boost.
Mack is eager to attack UCF’s secondary, which likes to play one-on-one.
“I can’t wait,” said Mack, who was injured and caught only two passes in last year’s game. “It means a lot to me because I get a chance to redeem myself and show people what I’m capable of. It’s dog vs. dog, and the best is going to come out. I want people to know that I’m that dog.”
3. Brightwell back in the middle
Saleem Brightwell, a fifth-year senior who started all 12 games at middle linebacker two years ago, is the third player to start in that position this season, following Elias Reynolds, who is nicked up, and Chase Pine.
Brightwell missed the first two games with an injury, but he said he is healthy now. He had five tackles against Penn State.
“I couldn’t be out there with my team the first couple games,” he said. “It was annoying because I know I have a lot to give to the team. I’m getting better day by day,” he said Wednesday.
4. Speed, speed, speed
UCF won’t let many more than 10 seconds elapse from the end of one play until start of the next.
Brightwell said Pitt coaches set up a pace that was “crazy, unrealistic,” hoping the real thing Saturday won’t seem as bad.
Narduzzi didn’t think it was unrealistic, admitting in the past he might have overdone it.
”We used to make (the defense) do up-downs,” he said. “They run a play and do up-downs just to give the scout team a chance. It’s really playing exhausted.”
He said they got the ball snapped consistently in 10-12 seconds, just like UCF
5. Another ranked opponent
Pitt teased its fans, again, last week at Penn State, giving the Nittany Lions a scare but losing in the end. It dropped Narduzzi’s record against ranked teams to 3-11.
Brightwell said it’s time for all of that to change.
“We want to prove to the world what kind of team we are,” he said. “I feel like we’re always the underdog. We always have something to prove. We always have a chip on our shoulder.
“It hurts every time we get a chance and we don’t get it done.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .