Pitt Preview: Panthers looking to take the next step
PITTSBURGH (AP) Pat Narduzzi considers himself a bit of a sloganeer. The Pitt football coach adopted ''Earn The Jersey'' during his first season in 2015. Last fall the Panthers rallied around ''The Pursuit.''
This time around, Narduzzi has coined ''Take It.'' And it means exactly what you think it means.
While the Panthers have put together consecutive 8-5 seasons under Narduzzi's stewardship - only the third time in the last 37 years Pitt reached the eight-win plateau in back-to-back years - he doesn't believe that's anywhere near the ceiling. Not for a team that was the only one in the country to knock off national champion Clemson last season.
''We've need to take it to the next level,'' Narduzzi said. ''We've got to go take it is really where that comes from. Nobody is going to give us anything.''
It's a mantra that resonates with quarterback Max Browne. A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Browne spent three years at USC fighting for a shot at the controls. When it finally arrived in 2016, Browne's tenure lasted just three games before he was replaced by freshman Sam Darnold.
Frustrated, Browne graduated early and searched for one last shot. He found it at Pitt, which is developing a reputation as a place where quarterbacks can resuscitate their careers. Tom Savage did it in 2013 after making Pitt his third school in four years. Nate Peterman did it in 2015 and 2016 after coming over from Tennessee. Both are now in the NFL.
Browne is in no mood to look that far down the road. He simply wants to play. His consistency during spring drills and training camp earned him the starting job for the season opener against Youngstown State on Sept. 2. And he has no plans of letting it go. There's too much to be done. Namely trying to get that considerable chip off his shoulder, one he's learned to embrace.
''That will be a part of me for football, life, wherever I go,'' Browne said. ''I think that's 100 percent the case. After year five, something has got to get you up, and that's definitely the case.''
Browne is hardly the only new face. Shawn Watson takes over as offensive coordinator after Matt Canada bolted for the same job at LSU. The Panthers averaged nearly 41 points a game last season by relying heavily on Peterman's steady play and a running game led by resurgent James Conner.
Watson opted to keep much of Canada's creative scheme and even with Conner playing next door for the NFL's Steelers, there are plenty of options. Quadree Henderson was an All-American as a kick returner and hopes to become a more consistent option at wide receiver. A deep backfield is led by 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison. Ollison took on a more supporting role in 2016 when Conner returned from a fight with cancer to become the leading touchdown scorer in ACC history. Ollison is eager to get back to work on a more regular basis.
''When I was a freshman, I was just running around like with my head cut off,'' he said. ''Just running and it was a crazy year and it ended up being a good one. Now I'm way better than I was as a freshman.''
Other things to look for as Pitt tries to reach the top of the ACC Coastal Division for the first time.
ROUGH ROAD: The breakthrough moment of Narduzzi's tenure came in a 42-39 victory over in-state rival Penn State last September. This year the Panthers have to travel to Happy Valley to take on a team ranked sixth in the preseason AP Top 25, part of a schedule bookended by tough stretches. Pitt faces the Nittany Lions on Sept. 9 and hosts Oklahoma State the following week. The Panthers finish the season by traveling to Virginia Tech then welcoming Miami the day after Thanksgiving.
SHORTHANDED: Pitt allowed a staggering 332 yards passing per game last season, next to last in the country. Narduzzi remains dedicated to playing predominantly man-to-man coverage, confident his group will start to win more matchups than it loses. The Panthers will have to do it without highly touted recruit Paris Ford, who the team will attempt to redshirt after he missed the opening weeks of training camp for undisclosed reasons. Pitt will also play its first three games without star safety Jordan Whitehead, who is suspended for a violation of team rules.
SHOWSTOPPERS: While average attendance at Heinz Field has risen since the move to the ACC in 2013, it can also be spotty. A record crowd of 69,983 showed up for the renewal of the Penn State rivalry, but only 34,049 showed up for the regular season home finale against Syracuse last year, a record-setting 76-61 victory by the Panthers. That's not a typo. New athletic director Heather Lyke is working on strategies to keep the fan base engaged. The Panthers will give away a Conner bobblehead against N.C. State on Oct. 14, host a ''Star Wars'' night against North Carolina on Nov. 9 and move the playing of ''Sweet Caroline'' from its usual spot at the end of the third quarter. Instead, the staple will be played at different times in different weeks.
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