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Poor showing from Pat Narduzzi defines Pitt loss to Virginia Tech

Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire

It’s been written time and again that Pat Narduzzi is the perfect man to lead the Pittsburgh Panthers. He has roots in both defense and the tri-state area (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia), having played his football at Youngstown State University.

Through one year and two-thirds of another, Narduzzi has won 13 games, which matches the most for any Pittsburgh coach over a two-year span since Dave Wannstedt in 2009 and 2010. He still has at least four games to go in 2016. The program is winning, and it’s protecting its Steel City identity while doing so.

However, Thursday was as poor a showing as one could get from a ball coach, which is something Pittsburgh couldn’t afford to have in what could be the team’s only prime-time game of the season.

Sure, the Panthers lost to the Virginia Tech Hokies at home, 39-36, and were all but eliminated from contention for the Coastal Division title. The real issue for Narduzzi, though, was the way in which Pittsburgh lost and the way he acted all night.

By now, everyone and their mother knows the Panthers’ defense is much stronger against the run than the pass. Pittsburgh has some young cornerbacks behind its experienced starters, so part of this situation is shaped by inevitable growing pains, but it’s become clear Narduzzi’s scheme isn’t helping.

The second-year coach refuses to make any type of adjustment and continues to leave his struggling cornerbacks on an island. He maintains this strategy week after week despite the fact Pittsburgh has the worst passing defense in the entire ACC. Coming into this week, the Panthers were allowing 298.9 passing yards per game, which was seventh-most in the nation.

That average is going to go up because Virginia Tech junior quarterback Jerod Evans dropped 406 passing yards on the Panthers Thursday night at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh accomplished its goal of limiting the Hokies to practically nothing on the ground; Virginia Tech averaged only 3.8 yards per rush, but that doesn’t matter much when a team is getting 10.1 yards per pass.

If Narduzzi pigeon-holing his players into his defensive system wasn’t obvious enough, ESPN sideline reporter Laura Rutledge announced on national television that the Pittsburgh coach was doing this. After Virginia Tech scored its 39th point of the night halfway to the fourth quarter, she reported from the sideline that Narduzzi was telling his corners he wasn’t going to change his scheme and that they simply had to play better.

Perhaps the defensive system he used at Michigan State will one day work at Pittsburgh. After all, Narduzzi is only in his second year, so he doesn’t have all the personnel he would like at his disposal. However, the best coaches adjust and play to their players strengths; they don’t put their players in positions to fail over and over and over again.

Top recruits watching Thursday’s game couldn’t have liked what they saw from Narduzzi’s inability to make his defenders look good. Anyone who doesn’t believe they perfectly fit what Narduzzi wants to do at Pittsburgh isn’t seriously going to consider joining the Panthers after the loss to the Hokies.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Pittsburgh coach whined to the officials all night long. At one point, he was so irate over a simple pass interference call that he broke his headset. By the end of the game, he was trending on Twitter.

His whining continued into his postgame press conference.

As in every football game, there were a fair amount of borderline calls, but Pittsburgh benefited from several of them, specifically when Panther defensive backs grabbed a receiver’s jersey and nothing was called.

This further showcases that Narduzzi doesn’t quite get it. If he was so tired of seeing his cornerbacks called for pass interference, he should have given them more help on the outside rather than leaving them in one-on-one coverage where they were routinely beaten and had no choice but to commit a penalty.

Even if one accepts the claim that Pittsburgh was on the short end of several calls, complaining about it in a postgame press conference isn’t the best way of getting even. It displays absolutely zero class.

Overall, there are valid reasons for saying that Narduzzi does have the Panthers on relatively solid footing. The offense maintained its streak of games in which it has scored at least 36 points. The Pitt offense is definitely better than it has been in the past. Yet, Pat Narduzzi was supposed to bring defense to the Steel City. Thursday was a pretty big step backwards.

The performance was deficient enough to affirm — throughout the ACC and the nation — that Pittsburgh’s secondary is in need of dire help. If the Panthers don’t fix this structural problem in 2017, everyone will wonder why Mark Dantonio’s former defensive coordinator has lost the magic touch.

There certainly wasn’t anything magical about Pitt’s defense on Thursday, as any remaining hopes for a first ACC Coastal title vanished into the night.

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