After ‘Pitt Special,’ Panthers to avoid letdown vs Blue Hens
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Narduzzi knows the danger of overlooking the Delaware Blue Hens.
The Pittsburgh coach was a ballboy in 1979 when father Bill was the coach at Youngstown State. The Penguins went 10-2 that season. The two losses that year? To the Blue Hens. One came during the regular season, a 51-45 setback at home. The other a 38-21 loss in the Division II title game.
“Youngstown expected to win the championship,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t get it done because of Delaware.”
The stakes won’t be quite as high on Saturday when Narduzzi and the Panthers (2-2) host the Blue Hens (3-1). There are no championships on the line, though any momentum Pitt gained during a euphoric 35-34 upset of UCF last week would vanish if the Panthers can’t carry it forward.
Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple dialed up a play they dubbed “Pitt Special” to seal it, a fourth-down call in the final seconds in which wide receiver Austin Mathews found quarterback Kenny Pickett in the end zone for the victory.
A week later, T-Shirts commemorating the aggressive, borderline bonkers play have been sold on the Pitt campus.
The Blue Hens, now perennial contenders in the Football Championship Subdivision, are coming off a dramatic comeback of their own. Delaware trailed Penn by 14 in the third quarter last weekend, holding on 28-27 after stopping a two-point conversion attempt by the Quakers with 2:24 to go.
This game is a homecoming of sorts for Blue Hens coach Danny Rocco, who played high school football for his father in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s. The Panthers have had issues with FCS-level opponents during Narduzzi’s four-plus years. Twice Pitt has been taken to the wire by Youngstown State. Victories over Villanova in 2016 and Albany in 2018 have been not-quite blowouts.
All four games came in season openers. This time the Panthers have had a month to forge an identity, one built on an aggressive defense and an offense that is suddenly pass-happy under Whipple.
Here are more things to look for as Pitt tries wrap up its nonconference schedule in style.
SACK EXCHANGE: Pitt’s defensive line hasn’t missed a beat even with Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp done for the season because of injuries. The Panthers are fourth in the country with 18 sacks, with sophomore Jaylen Twyman tied for fourth with 4 1/2. Not bad for a guy who was only pressed into the lineup when Weaver went down during training camp.
ARMS RACE: The Panthers have long considered themselves “RB U” thanks to the program’s rich history of producing quality running backs. That’s changing this season. Pitt is second nationally in pass attempts (180), a pace that would shatter Rod Rutherford’s school record of 413 set in 2003. Not that Narduzzi is particularly enamored with that development. If the Panthers are passing, it means they’re not running. And Pitt is 110th nationally on the ground, averaging just 114.5 yards per game.
FLIPPING OUT: Narduzzi is pleased with his team’s progress but is also doing what he can do keep everything in perspective. The season is a month old. Things can change quickly. If given a choice, he’d talk away his players’ phones to avoid scanning social media.
“I’m going to maybe see if I can buy them all flip phones,” he said. “They can’t look at anything, just flip phone. They can call mom, call your girlfriend. But you can’t go on the internet, can’t go on Twitter. It’s a good thing.”