PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi and his coaching staff won’t spend the next month preparing for a bowl game but the recruiting trail after Pittsburgh’s first losing season in a decade. Narduzzi, however, will hit the road with momentum. And then some.
The Panthers finished an uneven 5-7, their worst mark since 2007. Yet the youth movement Narduzzi has been touting since his hire three years ago finally seems to be growing up. The proof came during three spectacular hours last Friday, when Pitt dominated second-ranked Miami in a 24-14 victory that had all the hallmarks Narduzzi wants to become the program’s signature going forward.
The defense rattled Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier while limiting the Hurricanes to a season-low 232 yards. An offense that spent much of the fall searching for an identity may have found one — and a future in the process — in quarterback Kenny Pickett.
The freshman threw for a touchdown and ran for two others, including a 22-yard sprint to the pylon with 2:54 left that gave Pitt a 17-point lead. He ended the first start of his career by chest-bumping Narduzzi and slapping fives in the student section.
“It’s definitely another step in my career,” Pickett said. “It springboarded us into the offseason.”
After spending the better part of three months of instability under center, Pitt may have it for the next couple of years if Pickett can build upon his eye-opening performance.
“Kenny Pickett played lights out,” Narduzzi said.
The first true freshman in 10 years to start at center wasn’t the only one. A secondary that was torched for 542 yards passing in an embarrassing home loss to Oklahoma State in September improved steadily as the weeks passed. Pitt only allowed one team over 300 yards through the air the rest of the way as youngsters like cornerback Dane Jackson started playing with the confidence and swagger Narduzzi always believed would come if they just kept at it.
It’s a mentality Narduzzi kept preaching even as the losses mounted. When Pitt saw its bowl hopes disappear after failing to score from the Virginia Tech 1 in the final minute on Nov. 18, the Panthers could have packed it in. Instead, they put their most complete game of the year together even though there was nothing to play for other than the 14 seniors saying goodbye.
“For our younger guys, it’s just a point that when you believe and when you have faith … that anything can happen” Narduzzi said.
The group Narduzzi will take out for spring drills will be missing some familiar faces. Cornerback Avonte Maddox is graduating. So is wide receiver Jester Weah and offensive lineman Alex Officer. Junior tackle Brian O’Neill and safety Jordan Whitehead could test the NFL draft.
Even if they leave, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. Running back Darrin Hall, who emerged from a crowded backfield to take control of the position, will return. So will Qadree Ollison. The defense took slow, steady steps toward growth. A year ago, the Panthers were 127th in the country in yards passing allowed. They improved to 107th in 2017, a number skewed by the way the Cowboys lit them up on Sept. 16. Facing the surging Hurricanes, the Panthers played extensive man coverage and ended the nation’s longest winning streak at 15 games.
“I’m feeling better than I’ve ever felt since I’ve been here,” Maddox said. “This is going to be a great team. They are young, they are talented, they want to compete every play and they don’t give up.”
True, there is no bowl trip in the offing. Hard to imagine a bowl victory ending Pitt’s season on a more upbeat note than celebrating the first home win over a team with national title hopes.
“It’s a big win for Pittsburgh and gives belief to our kids,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a win that we needed. It’s something that we can grow with from this season and after the season.”