Pitt, Georgia Tech looking to turn page in ACC opener
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Penn State already beat Pittsburgh once this season. The Panthers are intent on not letting the Nittany Lions do it twice. That means forgetting about their nationally televised second-half meltdown during a 51-6 loss to their rivals as quickly as possible, even if some of the images will be difficult to shake.
"If you hang on to something too long, it's going to get in your head," Pitt sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett said.
A mantra both the Panthers (1-1) and Georgia Tech (1-1) will try to carry into their ACC opener on Saturday.
The Yellow Jackets come in with their own issues after South Florida rallied for a 49-38 victory . Georgia Tech lost despite rolling up 602 yards of total offense. Allowing a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns in the first quarter didn't help. Neither did three turnovers, two in the fourth quarter that sparked USF's late push.
"We created our own problems," Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson said.
Whoever can solve their problems the fastest will get an early leg up in what could be a wide-open race in the ACC's Coastal Division. Georgia Tech has won three of the five meetings since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013, including a 35-17 victory last season in which B-back Kirvonte Benson ran for 196 yards and two scores.
Benson, however, saw his junior year come to an abrupt end after injuring his knee against the Bulls. Redshirt freshman Jordan Mason will step in. Mason is averaging 7.5 yards per carry through two games.
Regardless of who is in the Georgia Tech backfield, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi knows the Panthers need to do a better job trying to keep the Yellow Jackets under wraps. Georgia Tech has averaged 351 yards rushing against Pitt since Narduzzi took over in 2015.
The Panthers frequently devoted 10-15 minutes of practice time to stopping the Yellow Jackets during training camp, a nod to how unusual Georgia Tech is to defend. One of the keys is staying mentally disciplined, something Pitt was unable to do when things started going sideways against Penn State.
Pitt trailed by just a point late in the first half punter Kirk Christodoulou mishandled an iffy snap in the rain and the Nittany Lions recovered. Three plays later Penn State's lead grew to 14-6, setting the stage for an ugly and one-sided second half. Breaking down the breakdowns wasn't exactly a good time. Yet the Panthers believe they have turned the corner quickly.
Judging by the energy level at practice in the aftermath, "you wouldn't be able to tell we got embarrassed," center Jimmy Morrissey said.
The same goes for Georgia Tech. Johnson is only too happy to hit the reset button.
"As disappointing as last week's game was, it's a non-conference game," Johnson said. "We're getting into the conference, our goal is to try and win our division. If we're going to do that, we need to win on Saturday."
There is no quarterback controversy at Georgia Tech. At least not yet. Still, freshman Tobias Oliver acquitted himself pretty well while filling in for TaQuon Marshall a significant portion of the second half against South Florida. Oliver ran for three touchdowns and had a team-high 18 carries. Marshall remains the starter and is the more polished passer, but Oliver hardly looked overcome by the stage.
"If we need Tobias, I'm confident that he can go in, play and run the game plan and do what we do," Johnson said. "I'm not going to go to game-plan just to play a guy."
READY TO RUN
Pitt senior Qadree Ollison has done exactly what head coach Pat Narduzzi hoped someone would do in September: take control at running back. Ollison ran for 119 yards against Penn State and has separated himself from a crowded backfield behind him. Narduzzi removed the "OR" on the depth chart at running back, meaning Ollison — the 2015 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year as a freshman — should get the bulk of the work.
NOT SO SPECIAL
Johnson took his team's inability to keep South Florida's Terrence Horne in check on kickoff returns personally. The plan is to play more experienced players on special teams this week after a handful of freshmen found themselves chasing Horne to the end zone. Pitt's Maurice Ffrench already has a kickoff return for a score this season.
"What we've got to do is take care of all the things we haven't done a good job of in the first couple of games," Johnson said. "One is the turnovers and, two, our kicking game is not very good."
Pitt tight ends coach Tim Salem tends to sleep in his office during the season. The loss to Penn State provided even more incentive than usual.
"Sleep doesn't come easy, anyway," Salem said. "Sometimes when you're sleeping, you can't sleep. You're now worried about, 'I have to tell so-and-so this or I have to do this.' ... It's a great diet plan. If you want to lose weight, just coach football."