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Pittsburgh focused on improving execution

| Friday, October 12, 2018

For Pittsburgh, 2018 has been a year marked by struggle. A program that is seemingly notorious for crushing the playoff hopes of national contenders, a big time performance has eluded the Panthers so far this season.

Of course, the Panthers (3-3, 2-1 ACC) have an opportunity to fulfill that upset role this weekend against the Irish on the road. On Monday, Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi was asked about what goes into executing a big upset, and for Narduzzi, the Panthers are focused solely on improving themselves right now, as execution has been lacking for them in 2018.

You know, we’re not thinking about big upsets, we’re thinking about us. We’re thinking about the guys in this room and us doing the details of what we need to do to be good on the first play of the game, and then as soon as the first play of the game is over, we go to the next play and play one play at a time, and that’s how you win football games,” Narduzzi said. “We’re not talking any upsets. We never do. We’re talking us and being a better football team and executing.

“It’s a matter when you execute and you believe in what you’re doing, those are the keys to playing well and having a chance to win the football game. That’s all — you just want a chance. We have yet to do that. We get to go on the road, which is always another challenge. We’ll be playing — I’ve been in that stadium plenty of times. I know what it’s like. I’ve sat and watched tape of 2015 when they came here, what they did and how they did it, all their screens. We’ve seen everything.”

The Panthers have gotten their chance against national contenders this season, specifically against UCF and Penn State, but they failed to put up a solid showing in either contest. In fact, they were outscored by a daunting 76 points in the two games combined. And much of that has to do with Pittsburgh’s woes on the defensive side of the ball this season. The Panthers have allowed 37 points or more in four of six contests this season, and the two games in which they allowed less were against Albany and Georgia Tech, two teams who don’t come close to the national stature of a top-10 team. And now, with a defense that has tallied a defensive efficiency rating of 50.0, which ranks 74th in the nation, the Panthers will be facing arguably the best offense they’ve faced all year.

For Narduzzi, it is crucial that the defensive line makes plays on junior quarterback Ian Book.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Ian Book fakes a handoff to junior running back Tony Jones Jr. and drops back to throw during Notre Dame’s 45-23 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia.

We’ve got to make plays on the quarterback,” he said. “They’re going to keep the quarterback and the quarterback can run. We’ve got to be disciplined this week, and Ian Book is a good football player. We’ll see how athletic we are this week when we go to South Bend.”

The speed, size and athleticism of Notre Dame’s offensive weapons pose a significant problem for the Panthers this weekend, and Narduzzi is aware of the matchup. Specifically, Pitt only has one defensive back taller than 6-foot-1, while the Irish boast several large receivers in senior Miles Boykin, junior Chase Claypool and senior tight end Alizé Mack.

Their receivers are big. I can’t tell the difference between their tight ends and the receivers. I think our guys are going to get confused,” Narduzzi said. “They put them all in 80 numbers and you can’t tell. They’re all big. They’re all fast, and we’ll have our hands full when we get out there Saturday at 3:30, 2:30 central.”

During Narduzzi’s press conference Monday, the head coach was specifically aware of Notre Dame’s recent momentum under Book. Narduzzi said his squad is excited to play the Irish, but it is aware that Notre Dame under Ian Book is one of the best teams in the country.

But I’m looking forward to Notre Dame, and when I say I’m looking forward, I don’t know if I’m looking forward to playing the No. 5 team in the country because they’re awful good,” he said. “Maybe as good of a football team as you’re going to see, that Notre Dame has ever had, I think. Ian Book is — you hate to say it every week, could you face a better one, but that [Trace] McSorley is excellent. I thought McKenzie [Milton] was excellent. I think [Eric] Dungey is excellent, but he scrambles, making plays with his feet.

“Now all of a sudden here we’ve got a guy named Book, the guy named Book. You’re like, where did this guy come from, where’s Wimbush? Wimbush is really good, St. Peter’s Prep High School, Jersey guy, and then there’s Book, and Book is — offensively he’s making things click. He can run. He’s tough. He’ll run you over … you’d better watch out on the sideline if you’re standing around. He’ll take you out, too. He’s got the whole package. I think they’ve found their guy. Their tailbacks, their wide outs.”

The Panthers have been able to put points on the board this year, scoring over 30 points in three of their six games this season. But with an offensive efficiency rating of 51.0, which ranks No. 67 in the nation, the offensive unit has not been without struggle this year. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett has logged an adjusted quarterback rating of 45.4 and thrown for only six touchdowns this season. Notre Dame’s defensive unit, which currently ranks 16th in defensive efficiency in the nation, will pose a notable threat to the Panthers offense this week.

On top of the challenges the Irish pose for the Panthers this weekend, Pittsburgh has lost two of its starters this week — tight end Tyler Sear, who is leaving the team for personal reasons and linebacker Quintin Wirginis, who leads the team in tackles, due to a non-contact knee injury suffered in practice.

Ultimately, Narduzzi relishes the opportunity to play a team like Notre Dame, but it’s still a football game for him at the end of the day — it’s purely business.

Notre Dame is a great institution, great place. I’m Catholic, I love Notre Dame, but this is a football game,” he said. “We’re going to walk in there. It’s a business trip. We’re going to stay in the hotel, we’re going to get them up in the morning, we’re going to drive our bus to the stadium, we’re going to get out, we’re going to go through some cement walls to a locker room and we’re going to put our gear on and we’re going to go out and go. I don’t know if there’s a difference. It’s all about the football game. We’re not going to go to the Basilica or go see Touchdown Jesus. We’re not taking any tours. We’re going to play a football game.”

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