PITTSBURGH – After an offseason of speculation and anticipation, Pitt will finally unveil its new offense against Virginia as the Panthers open their 130th football season under the lights at Heinz Field on Saturday night.
The offseason hiring of Mark Whipple as offensive coordinator was a move made to improve the passing game, though coach Pat Narduzzi says the team will still rely on its backfield plenty.
“We’re still going to be able to run the football,” Narduzzi said. “It starts there.
“Your passing game won’t be worth a darn if you can’t run the football.”
Pitt’s ability to run the football was a major factor in the 23-13 win over Virginia in 2018, a win that vaulted the Panthers ahead of the Cavaliers and led to Pitt sealing the ACC Coastal Division crown two weeks later. Running back Darrin Hall scored three touchdowns in a rain-soaked game in Charlottesville last November.
Tailbacks A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley Jr. are still likely to have a significant number of carries this season, even as the Panthers strive for offensive balance.
“We don’t want to be one-dimensional coming out of the game saying we ran the ball 80% of the time. I’d like to say it’s 60/40 run. 50/50 would be nice,” Narduzzi said.
Pitt’s shiny new offense will face a significant test against Virginia’s defense.
The Cavaliers run a 3-4 base defense, presenting a challenge for Pitt’s four new starters along the offensive line.
Virginia’s defense also features Pennsylvania native, cornerback Bryce Hall. In 2018, Hall led the nation in pass breakups (22) and tied for the lead in passes defended (24).
Against Pitt last season he had five tackles, a sack, and forced a fumble.
Narduzzi acknowledged Hall’s talent, but said the offense won’t shy away from throwing in his direction.
“We’re going to run our offense as is,” Narduzzi said. “(We) can’t eliminate the right side of the field for the offense. We played other good corners. That’s our job on offense.”
Pitt’s defense will have a different Bryce to contend with in dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins. Last season Perkins was one of only two quarterbacks with at least 2,600 passing yards and 900 rushing yards; the other was Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.
Despite those numbers, the Panthers kept Perkins in check in last year’s meeting with the Cavaliers, sacking him five times. Perkins threw for 205 yards and a touchdown but was neutralized in the run game, finishing with a rushing total of negative seven yards.
“We got him down on the ground, that was key. One way or another we got him down on the ground,” Narduzzi said.
“Tackling the quarterback is going to be critical this week for our D-line and linebackers, for that matter.”
The coach recognizes the challenges that come with facing Virginia and Perkins in the first game of the season.
“Last time we played them, we were in mid-season form as far as hitting a quarterback,” Narduzzi said.
“That’s the biggest thing, tackling the quarterback…doesn’t matter who we’re facing in the pocket, we got to hit the guy regardless of how athletic he is.”
This will be the first time the Panthers have opened the season with a conference opponent since their inaugural ACC season in 2013, when they lost 41-13 to eventual national champion Florida State at Heinz Field.
The Panthers may be the reigning ACC Coastal Division champions, but a preseason media poll picked the Cavaliers to win the division this season, while Pitt was picked fourth.
Narduzzi says he isn’t concerned with preseason rankings or what happened last season.
“You can throw everything out. This is 2019, last year was 2018,” Narduzzi said.
“This is totally new teams, new people…Doesn’t matter what happened a year ago. They’re the preseason favorites.
“But there’s a reason they’re there.
“There’s a reason we’re picked fourth.
“So our guys got to step up.”