Saturday was supposed to be a time of maturation for the Pittsburgh Panthers. They were half a quarter away from capturing their first victory against North Carolina since joining the ACC and grabbing a foothold in the Coastal Division race.
Instead, Saturday was another reminder of just how little the Panthers’ defense has improved under second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi.
When Pittsburgh hired Narduzzi nearly two years ago, he was considered the perfect fit as a head coach. He was born in Connecticut, but his father became the head coach at Youngstown State — which is about an hour from downtown Pittsburgh — when he was nine. Narduzzi played linebacker for his father for one season at Youngstown State before transferring to Rhode Island.
Not only did he have a connection to the area; Narduzzi came with a natural Steel City style and personality. His background as defensive coordinator at Michigan State, which he helped turn into a defensive power, struck a nostalgic nerve in Pittsburgh fans hopeful that the Panthers would return to prominence again — not via Todd Graham’s spread offense, but with a stout defense and healthy running attack.
However, 17 games into the Narduzzi era, the Panthers have made very few strides defensively, which has to leave fans utterly disappointed.
Statistics can be skewed just a month into the season, because some of the top teams have played better competition while others get cupcakes on the schedule. Pittsburgh opened the season with FCS member Villanova and then faced Marshall, but in their other two non-conference games, the Panthers faced formidable foes Penn State and Oklahoma State.
Even then, that doesn’t excuse the fact the Panthers are ranked 11th in total defense in the ACC and 89th out of 128 FBS schools. They are also 11th in points allowed in the conference.
Pittsburgh has been particularly bad in pass defense, ranking last in the ACC with 361 passing yards allowed per game. That’s also bad enough for second-to-worst in the FBS — only Arizona State (coached by Graham, who is persona non grata in Pittsburgh) yields more.
Again, it’s a small sample size, and Pittsburgh has already faced two top-15 passing offenses in college football, but the schedule doesn’t get any easier. The Panthers still have Syracuse, Clemson, Duke and Virginia coming up, all of which rank among the top 35 in passing yards in the country. Even Marshall, Pittsburgh’s opponent this week, is in the top 40.
It’s going to take more than just the law of averages to balance out the Panthers’ ugly pass defense statistics. Narduzzi needs a stronger pass rush and better red zone defense — and toughness on fourth downs — to improve his ailing defense.
Pittsburgh is tied for the ACC lead with 17 sacks, so on the surface, pass rush doesn’t appear to be the problem. Sixth-year senior Ejuan Price already has 5.5 sacks, which puts him nearly halfway toward equaling his 11.5 quarterback takedowns from a year ago.
However, offenses have attempted 20 more passes against the Panthers’ defense than any other ACC team, meaning the Pittsburgh defense has more opportunities for sacks than anyone else in the conference. When the game is on the line, the Panthers have mustered very little in the form of a pass rush. Despite an obvious passing situation on snap after snap, Pittsburgh recorded just one sack on North Carolina’s final two touchdown drives Saturday.
Outside of Price, the highly-regarded Pittsburgh defensive line has 2.5 sacks. Former four-star defensive tackle transfer Dewayne Hendrix has yet to record one sack or tackle for a loss. Without a consistent pass rush, Narduzzi has been forced to call more blitzes, leaving more people open on the back end. Playmaking junior cornerback Avonte Maddox has 2.5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss, but no interceptions. Pittsburgh has just two picks in four games.
The other major problem is that when opponents get into the red zone, they are scoring touchdowns far too frequently against the Panthers. The Pittsburgh defense has allowed 14 drives into the red zone; opponents have scored on 13 of them, and 11 of those scoring drives were touchdowns. That opponent’s red zone touchdown rate is third-worst in the ACC.
Giving up the yards is one thing, but the problems with scoring defense are another issue in and of itself. Until Pittsburgh’s defense improves in the red zone, the Panthers won’t stop giving up 30 points per contest.
As much as some may call for patience with the Pittsburgh program, particularly due to the fact the Panthers appear to have a coach that perfectly fits the program and city’s personality, it’s extremely discouraging to see the Panthers’ defense actually taking a small step backwards in Year Two.
Regardless of his background, Narduzzi will have to improve this defense over the final three months and next season in order to prove he is the long-term coaching solution in Pittsburgh.