Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi just wrapped up his second regular season with the Panthers. Much like the first year, his follow-up season can only be described as a success.
Perfect? Nope. Ideal? Nah. But Narduzzi has continued to make good progress with a program that was mired in mediocrity upon his arrival.
The pre-Narduzzi era saw four consecutive 6-6 years under Todd Graham and Paul Chryst. The year before that, in his final year at the helm, Dave Wannstedt was 7-5. Narduzzi has won eight regular season games two years in a row and done the most winning at Pitt since 2008 and 2009.
To be fair to his predecessor, Chryst, he assembled most of the talent that Narduzzi is now winning with. However, there are a few reasons why Narduzzi now deserves credit.
First, he's avoided the pitfall losses that Chryst suffered. Chryst dropped an ugly game against Youngstown State in his debut. For those that remember it, it wasn't only a loss, but a convincing one. To lose to an FCS program on your home field in that manner is beyond unacceptable. Chryst not only managed that, but also dropped games to Akron and a very beatable Navy team. Narduzzi has yet to sustain such a disappointment. He's won the games he was supposed to, lost only to good teams, and has upended a couple of very good teams on the way.
Narduzzi is also winning already with some of his own players, which are true underclassmen. Narduzzi not only kept Jordan Whitehead, Quadree Henderson, and others from Paul Chryst's 2015 recruiting class, but added key players since coming here that have played key roles. While most of his additions to that class are question marks, linebacker Saleem Brightwell has already made an impact this year and has the look of a potential star. A few guys from his 2016 class, too, have already made impacts as true freshmen, such as Chawntez Moss, Maurice Ffrench, Amir Watts, Aaron Mathews, and others.
Don't forget, too, that Narduzzi and his staff made a key decision at quarterback. The move to anoint Nathan Peterman over Chad Voytik was curious to many fans - myself included. But when you look back at the past two years when Peterman has been at the helm, it was clearly the right decision. Peterman has flourished and while he's not a guy that will go out and throw for 300 yards, he's also more than just a game manager. He's made a lot of accurate throws this year, and threw for 26 touchdowns to only six interceptions. He's not only limited his mistakes but was very productive. Simply put, if Chryst was still here, adding a guy like Peterman probably doesn't happen. And when you consider that Chad Voytik struggled at Arkansas State this year, even being benched while playing at a lower level, the change to Peterman was even more clearly the right decision.
Collectively, the offense has been quite a sight. They scored 76 points on Saturday against Syracuse and are tenth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging over 42 points per game. Under coordinator Matt Canada, the Panthers have scored at will and Narduzzi deserves a lot of credit for landing him. This was not only one of the top offenses in the ACC, but the entire country.
The defense has struggled quite a bit, but that's been a two-sided coin. They've given up a lot of points and big chunks of yardage, but that's also been the product of a porous secondary. The front seven in the running game has performed admirably. So much so, in fact, that the Panthers' run defense is ninth in the nation. Those guys haven't only gotten the job done, they've been absolute beasts.
The other thing to like about this team is, of course, the big wins. Sure, we can talk about the coulda, woulda, shoulda games against North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma State, but the Panthers also had some absolutely huge wins. The Penn State win was already big but is even more of a landmark win given that the Nittany Lions are in the top ten. And obviously, to beat Clemson on the road is just an incredible feat. But one thing fans shouldn't overlook is also the win against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were 8-4 as well this season and that is looking more and more like a quality win.
Fans also shouldn't discount the number of insane injuries the Panthers have had:
- Within the first two games, they lost their top returning wide receiver (Dontez Ford) for half of the year and a starting linebacker (Elijah Zeise) for the whole season.
- Last year's No. 3 receiver and candidate to start this season, Zach Challingworth, missed the entire season.
- Secondary starters Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead both missed a quarter of the season - Maddox's replacement Phillipie Motley has also missed time.
- Ditto for linebacker Mike Caprara and wide receiver Tre Tipton, who both missed several games.
- Damar Hamlin was a potential starter at cornerback but missed the first several games then had to work his way into the rotation.
- Starting defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett has missed a couple of games and fellow starting tackle Shakir Soto has played, but been banged up. Starting end Rori Blair has missed time.
- Backup Chawntez Moss, who at one point even looked like the best back on the team, has missed a few games.
To have the kind of success the team has with so many key guys out for several games makes it that much more impressive. All teams sustain injuries. But Pitt has had almost ten starters or potential starters miss about a quarter of the season or more. Add in the challenging schedule and this has really been a strong year.
Overall, it's really tough to be disappointed. I can see being a little frustrated at what might have been with some of the close losses. But as I said in the comments section of the Syracuse post, those work both ways. Pitt was fortunate to defeat Georgia Tech and Penn State in very close games that could have easily been lost.
Narduzzi, I'm convinced, has this thing moving in the right direction. He's already had some degree of success and the next step is trying to get Pitt back to nine and ten wins. They have work to do and need to claim a Division title. But two years into the Narduzzi experiment, it's very hard to not be sold. They'll have a shot at nine with the bowl game and that would make this an even more special year.