On Saturday, Pitt suffered a crushing defeat to Penn State. A loss wasn’t entirely unexpected as the Panthers were nearly double-digit underdogs. What did raise eyebrows was the manner in which the Panthers lost.
Pitt was routed 51-6 by their in-state rival in a game that no one could really have expected. Losing by 19 as was the case last year? That happens. By 45? That’s on an entirely different level.
And while it’s the players that are ultimately responsible, the one guy from the Pitt side that immediately comes to mind is head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Truth be told, I’m a Narduzzi fan. A pretty big one, actually. I think he’s brought a swagger to Pitt that was lacking. Narduzzi’s backed it up, too. He defeated Penn State in the initial matchup in 2016. Later that season, he upset No. 2 Clemson on the road. Last year, his team knocked off No. 2 Miami at home. Narduzzi has, for all intents and purposes delivered in big games. He’s not won all of them but no one does. That Pitt has won as many big games under him in such a short time, to be honest, is impressive. And, even though the team had a down year last season, the Panthers won eight regular season games in each of his first two years here - a significant step up from what Pitt had done in the four years before his arrival.
So, here’s the thing. Narduzzi has, as he probably should have, placed a lot of emphasis on the Penn State games. I think we can argue about how wise it is to place the degree of emphasis on it that he does. But, right or wrong, he’s made a big deal out of it and, really, there’s no way to avoid it. It very clearly is a big game to both programs. Narduzzi’s hypersensitive strategy of blocking players off from the media and such seemed to pay off in 2016 when the Panthers won that game. But the last two years have been a mess with ugly losses and Narduzzi leaves with some degree of egg on his face.
As I said, it’s one thing to lose these games. If the Panthers merely lost close matchups, there might be some disappointment. But reasonable fans would understand those. However, when you get absolutely blown out in a game that many people feel should be close, that’s something else.
To be fair to Narduzzi, he completely owned this one afterwards on Saturday. “I want to apologize to Pitt nation out there,” Narduzzi said. “That was not Pitt football. Ultimately everything lays right on my chest.”
Still, that won’t satisfy a lot of folks. Narduzzi’s emphasis on this game makes him an easy target when the team falls short.
Is that fair? Pitt fans, after all, have insisted right along with Narduzzi that it is a big game. And, as I said, there’s really no way that it’s not, if we’re being honest with ourselves. If Narduzzi didn’t make a big deal out of it, fans would accuse him of downplaying it. The unfortunate reality, however, is that when you make it such a big contest and you not only lose but are blown out, it just all looks kind of silly.
Whether he likes it or not (and whether it’s fair or not), Narduzzi’s reputation has taken a bit of a hit with these two losses the last two years. Narduzzi has the big game rep still after wins over No. 2 Clemson and Miami teams. But there’s no doubt that some fans have lots of questions after games like this.