Points to ponder while waiting to watch Pitt play at Duke
In his weekly Thursday chats with reporters — after “the hay is in the barn” as he occasionally points out — Pat Narduzzi almost always praises his team for a good week of work.
He took it a step further this week when he said Pitt had “three really passionate days of practice.”
What is a passionate practice, and what does it mean to Pitt’s game Saturday at Duke?
“I like where they are,” Narduzzi said, referencing his players’ state of mind.
“This game is half-mental and half-physical. You can go out there and physically do what you’re supposed to do, but you better be into it. There’s has to be emotion and energy. We lacked that last Saturday (against Delaware). Sometimes, that goes with your opponent.
“Some guys turn their emotion and passion off when maybe they’re not playing who they want to. You put the tape on and watch Duke, you better bring your passion.”
Here are seven thoughts to ponder while waiting for the 8 p.m. kickoff Saturday on the ACC Network:
1. Must-win for Pitt?
Going strictly by the math, no.
Even an 0-2 Pitt team can recover, finish 6-2 (the record that won the ACC Coastal last year) and consider the season a success.
But the margin for error would be reduced to zero, and Pitt (3-2, 0-1) still must visit Syracuse, tangle with Miami and try to beat North Carolina for the first time as an ACC member.
Warning I: Narduzzi called the Blue Devils “the best Duke team we faced since we’ve been here.”
Warning II: Last year, Duke (3-1, 1-0) gashed Pitt’s defense for six touchdowns and 619 yards.
Warning III: Pitt has lost 15 of its past 20 games away from Heinz Field.
2. Keep an eye on Harris
Duke quarterback Quentin Harris only has been sacked once, thanks to his quick release (and, possibly, a schedule that includes North Carolina A&T, Middle Tennessee and a struggling Virginia Tech).
Also, former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson seems to have bequeathed his triple option to Cutcliffe, who dabbles with it just enough to force teams to spend time getting ready for it.
“We’re practicing Georgia Tech and Duke on the same week,” Narduzzi said. “That’s not something you normally do. If you don’t spend extra time on the option, you’re going to have problems Saturday.”
After sitting behind Daniel Jones for three seasons, Harris is one of only two FBS quarterbacks with at least 700 passing yards (842), 10 passing touchdowns and 300 rushing yards (303). Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts is the other. The loss of running back Brittain Brown (shoulder surgery) increases Duke’s dependence on its quarterback.
3. So close on specials
Pitt had six kickoff returns for touchdowns in the first 15 years of this century but seven since Narduzzi and special teams coach Andre Powell arrived in 2015.
But none this year.
Pitt is seventh in the ACC in kickoff returns (21.5-yard average) and 12thin punt returns (5.1).
“If you were able to see the video, you would go ‘Oh, my gosh.’ We are so close,” Powell said. “Any day now, we may split one.”
4. Whatever works, keep doing it
Pitt goes into its sixth game — almost halfway through the season — second in the nation to Washington State in pass attempts (217).
With questions surrounding injured running backs A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis and quarterback Kenny Pickett healthy, Pitt could continue throwing as its chief means of moving the football. Maybe Narduzzi might spring a run-heavy attack on Duke. That’s his personality, so it wouldn’t be a total surprise.
Powell, who also is the running backs coach, is good either way.
“We’d like to run the ball, but we like winning,” he said. “We have to do whatever we think puts us in the best position to win.”
Sophomore Todd Sibley’s 106 yards might boost his confidence going into Durham.
“He has a little pep in his step now,” Powell said. “We need that.”
5. Good, bad of prime time
“I guarantee you I don’t like 8 o’clock kickoffs,” 65-year-old Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Us old people would rather be getting ready to go to bed because I get up so early. I could kickoff at 9 a.m. If the Pac-12 doesn’t like it, bring it here. I’m all in.”
Both coaches said the late kickoff gives players a rare chance to sleep late.
Narduzzi said his players might nap early Saturday afternoon, something they try to do as often as possible, anyway. After all, they set their alarms to go off before 6 a.m. most mornings.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .