Pittsburgh made headlines by defeating some powerhouses on their way to an 8-5 season in 2016. The Panthers took down national champion Clemson and Big Ten champ Penn State last season and established a reputation as a disciplined and focused team in head coach Pat Narduzzi’s second year. In 2017 though, Pitt loses a lot of pieces and will be tasked with finding a new identity in an ACC Coastal that yet again really has no clear-cut favorite.
The Hurricanes have a long and storied history with the Panthers; they were Big East foes back in the 90’s and early 2000’s before they both settled into the ACC Coastal division. Miami has a 25-10-1 overall record against the Panthers, including winning a whopping 10 of their last 11 meetings.
In 2017, the Canes head to Heinz Field to play a Pitt team looking to avenge last years 51-28 loss to UM in Miami Gardens.
(If you’d like a more technically sound look at what Pittsburgh brings to the table, check out Justin Dottavio’s piece on the X’s and O’s of this matchup.)
Pittsburgh In a Nutshell
Pat Narduzzi enters his 3rd season as the man running the show in Pittsburgh after coming over from handling the defense at Michigan State. Narduzzi, more known for his defensive mind, has actually fielded some impressive offense at Pitt so far, while his defenses have suffered. He has strung together back-to-back 8-5 years, but Narduzzi is still looking for both the first division title and bowl win of his Panthers tenure.
To achieve these goals, Narduzzi has his work cut out for him. Narduzzi now has his 3rd offensive coordinator in 3 years with Pitt, as former OC Matt Canada left for the same position with LSU. He’ll also be replacing James Connor, who leaves Pitt as the all-time ACC leader in touchdowns and Pitt’s 2nd leading rusher of all-time behind Tony Dorsett. 6 of 7 starters in the front 7 must be replaced on defense, but that might not be an altogether bad thing; the Panthers ranked 106th in the FBS in points allowed with 35.2 PPG and second to last in pass defense.
Pitt comes into 2017 looking for successors to their dynamic backfield duo of QB Nathan Peterman and RB James Connor. USC transfer Max Browne will take over as the Panthers QB after losing his job to Sam Darnold back in Los Angeles. Working with new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, how much Browne lives up to his former 5-star hype will be a big factor in determining how far Pitt can go this season. With a fearsome twosome of weapons in WR’s Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson, who combined for 20 touchdowns last season, Browne and the Panthers will likely opt to test opponents in the back 4 early and often.
Replacing Connor is junior Qadree Ollison, but Ollison has played this role before. The former ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year stepped in for an injured Conner back in 2015 and galloped for 1,121 yards. Backing up Ollison and providing depth will be Darrin Hall, a former 4-star recruit who has speed to burn. Paving the way for them will be tackle Brian O’Neill and guard Alex Bookser, both of whom earned All-ACC honors in 2016.
Getting the defense closer to Narduzzi’s Michigan State levels is probably priority number 1 for Pitt this season. Finding a way to replicate the production of double-digit sack artist Ejuan Price will be paramount for a Panthers team with 6 new starters in its front 7. Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix was brought in to provide an instant upgrade at DE, but he’s been inconsistent in fall camp and his starting role is already in jeopardy. LB Oluwaseun Idowu (75 tackles in 2016) is the sole returning member of the front 7 and will team with fellow linebackers Elijah Zeise and Saleem Brightwell to clean up any messes that get past the D-Line.
In the secondary, junior S Jordan Whitehead, who was the 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year, is probably Pitt’s most talented defender, but off the field troubles are a cause for concern. Whitehead will be suspended for the first 3 games of the season, however will be back for the Miami game. His return to patrolling the middle of the field will give the Panthers a boost defending against air attacks. He’ll be joined by senior corner Avonte Maddox, who has led the Panthers in pass breakups and interceptions the past two seasons.
Pitt is betting that a changed overall culture and enhanced recruiting will help them stave off any regression from all their departures. A lot will depend on how well Browne performs in his last shot at redemption, but to be quite honest, he looks to have a clearly defined ceiling based on his performance at USC.
This game will be played at the end of the year, so any injuries or surprise player developments will be fully on the table, but on paper, this Pitt team looks worse than the one the Canes demolished back in November of last year. How does Pitt stop Mark Walton, who had a big game against the Panthers last year and now will go up against a completely rebuilt front 7? We say they don’t, and the Canes will control the game on the ground and use a suffocating pass rush to disrupt Browne. We’re going Miami, 38-21.