Pat Narduzzi might have contemplated a specific scenario the past 10 days, while his Pittsburgh Panthers haven’t played a game.
It happens quite often in various sports, not just college football: Coach A, so comfortable and successful as a coordinator at School X, tries his hand at head coaching at School Y. The credentials are there, the fit feels right, and yet the move doesn’t work out. Meanwhile, School X has trouble finding an adequate replacement for Coach A. Nobody wins.
It’s not “final verdict” time, but one and a half seasons since Narduzzi left Michigan State as Mark Dantonio’s right-hand man to become the Boss Panther at Pitt, neither the Spartans nor the Sons of the Steel City are having fun. Michigan State is winless in the Big Ten and very likely headed for a bowl-less season. Pitt’s season isn’t yet a failure, but it likely will become one if the Panthers can’t handle Virginia Tech in a massive game Thursday night at Heinz Field.
Some situations are win-win, but in the immediacy of the present moment, Michigan State and Pitt have forged a lose-lose scenario, with Narduzzi in the middle of it.
Michigan State has become sloppy and scattered on defense, failing to clamp down in fourth quarters and getting eviscerated for 54 points by Northwestern in East Lansing. Life offers no guarantees, but a fellow named Narduzzi probably would not have allowed that to happen. Meanwhile, it’s not as though Narduzzi’s coaching acumen has taken root in Pittsburgh with the Panthers’ defense. While the offense gets the job done on a weekly basis, continuously cranking out 36 or more points, Pitt has hemorrhaged on defense.
The numbers can’t be more striking, and they can’t possibly represent more of an indictment of a defense: Pittsburgh has allowed at least 27 points in every FBS game this season. The Panthers have conceded at least 31 points in every Power Five game they’ve played in 2016. Pittsburgh has given up 34 and 39 points in its two Power Five home games.
At most, the Panthers’ defense is able to play two relatively solid quarters per game, but never three, let alone all four.
It’s true that North Carolina and Oklahoma State contain legitimately potent offenses, but Virginia’s offense is only modestly powerful. North Carolina — the team other than Virginia Tech which Pitt is trying to catch in the ACC Coastal — contained the Cavaliers in Charlottesville without too much of a problem this past weekend. Penn State scored only two offensive touchdowns in Week 8 against Ohio State and looked conspicuously limited. That same PSU offense lit up Team Narduzzi for 39 points, and would have scored 46 if a Nittany Lion receiver hadn’t dropped a long pass late in the fourth quarter of that all-Pennsylvania tilt.
Bluntly put, Pitt’s defense under Narduzzi hasn’t played one complete FBS game yet this season. A shutdown of FCS member Villanova is a bread crumb of achievement, nothing more.
Now, this defense has to go up against one of the finest offensive minds in college football, Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech. How in blazes will Pitt corral Hokie quarterback Jerod Evans and escape this unrelenting pattern of Power Five shootouts?
The great hope for Pitt and Narduzzi is simply this: The restorative power of the bye week.
One of Week 8’s big headlines was Auburn taking Arkansas to the woodshed, 56-3. Arkansas had not yet encountered a bye week, while Auburn was coming off a break. The Tigers looked as fresh as they hoped they would, while Arkansas lacked any juice.
This Thursday, Virginia Tech is coming off a win over Miami in an emotional ACC Coastal game. Pittsburgh, without a bye through Week 7, got its coveted Saturday off on Oct. 22. A midseason bye offers the chance to rest and replenish. The bye also gives Narduzzi the ability to teach his defense, make structural tweaks where needed, and refine concepts so that his players, especially the back seven, make better and sharper reactions against Virginia Tech and all other remaining opponents.
Pitt has to go to Clemson in November. Therefore, a loss to Virginia Tech — which would put Pitt on the short side of head-to-head tiebreakers against the Hokies and division-leading North Carolina — would represent a death-blow in the Coastal race.
It’s all or nothing for the Panthers and Pat Narduzzi this Thursday. Will the former Michigan State coordinator prove to himself — not just his team and his fan base — that leaving East Lansing can and will work out?