PITTSBURGH – After a discouraging loss to Virginia in the season opener, Pitt is looking to bounce back against Mid-American Conference favorite Ohio on Saturday.
The contest has all the makings of a classic “trap game." A Group of Five team sandwiched between division opponent Virginia and traditional rival Penn State might make it easy to overlook the Bobcats as a serious challenge to the Panthers. Looking past Ohio could prove costly, as the Bobcats have upset both Pitt and Penn State during coach Frank Solich’s tenure.
One person who isn’t overlooking Ohio is Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.
“Ohio U., if you put the tape on, is good enough to whoop your tail,” Narduzzi said at his Monday press conference. “They're well-coached. They've been there for a long time, and (Solich has) been there, I think, 15th season. He's got a system in, he's got his kids there. They're sound.
“They don't do too much, but they're very good at what they do.”
The Bobcats are coming off back-to-back 9-4 seasons – each ending with a bowl win. Solich is just four victories away from becoming the winningest coach in MAC history. Dual-threat quarterback Nathan Rourke returns for his third season as a starter, following a stellar 2018 season which saw him throw 23 touchdowns and add another 15 rushing.
In Ohio’s 41-20 win over Rhode Island in Week 1, Rourke completed 73 percent of his passes while throwing for 188 yards and two touchdowns. He also led the team with 75 rushing yards and scored a rushing touchdown.
“He's accurate. He's smart. He makes good decisions,” Narduzzi said of Rourke. “He can run it, too. He's nifty and can run. They'll run a lot of quarterback keepers and they'll run some option and option pass with them.”
As for Pitt’s offense, the Panthers will need a better showing than what transpired against Virginia last week. Pitt totaled just 263 yards on offense and was shut out in the second half. Quarterback Kenny Pickett faced consistent pressure and the offense struggled to find any sort of rhythm throughout the game.
Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will have to dig into his bag of tricks to get Pitt’s offense going. While Pitt hasn’t faced Ohio since an ill-fated trip to Athens in 2005, Whipple has faced the Bobcats each of the last two seasons as head coach at Massachusetts.
While Massachusetts lost both games, they put up a combined 92 points and 1,001 yards of offense in the two games against Ohio.
Whipple may be familiar with what works against Ohio’s defense, but Narduzzi doesn’t think that gives the Panthers a leg up.
“Is it an advantage maybe for them because they know what Whipple likes to do, they've seen it for two years in a row,” Narduzzi said. “Whipple knows them maybe a little bit on defense, but they also know Whipple. They're not going to be surprised.”
Narduzzi himself is also familiar with the Ohio defense; he helped design it. Narduzzi has a close friendship with Ohio’s former defensive coordinator Jim Burrow, who served at the position from 2005 until retiring following last season.
“Jim Burrow is a good friend who was a defensive coordinator, so we've always talked, and I've always been comfortable sharing football with other guys around the country,” Narduzzi said.
“We’ve really been in touch with Coach Narduzzi quite a bit, in terms of his defensive knowledge,” Solich said in his Monday conference call with the media.
“He’s been great, he’s helped us formulate things from the defensive side of it and we’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
While Narduzzi may not think familiarity with Ohio’s defense will work in the Panthers favor, he’s hoping the unconventional 11 a.m. kickoff at home will.
“We’re a morning practice team, so I don’t mind going out in the mornings,” Narduzzi said on his radio show. “I think our kids are better in the mornings, to be honest with you. I think it’ll play into our hands a little bit, I hope."