Pitt hopes for answers against No. 9 Oklahoma State (Sep 16, 2017)
PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State have played another just once, but that meeting will reverberate on Saturday.
The No. 9 Cowboys visit the Panthers at Heinz Field in the return game from last year's meeting, when Oklahoma State beat the Panthers 45-37 in a marathon thriller in Stillwater, Okla.
For the Panthers and their defense, this is a shot at "redemption."
That was the word head coach Pat Narduzzi used in his press conference Monday when describing the opportunity his secondary has when it comes to rectifying the issues that led to an incredible statistical day from the Cowboys a year ago.
In that one, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph went 26 of 46 for 540 yards and two touchdowns, with consensus All-American receiver James Washington collecting 296 receiving yards. That's something that still doesn't sit well with the defensive-minded Narduzzi and his charges.
After last week's loss at rival Penn State, Narduzzi altered the Panthers' end-of-week routine.
"We finished meetings, which we usually don't, on Sunday night by splitting up individually to go watch the Oklahoma State tape just for a little bit to get their minds on them," he said. "They are very, very talented and our focus has to go to them."
Rudolph has been hot, completing 45 of 62 passes (72.5 percent) for 638 yards and six touchdowns in leading a team that has scored 103 points in a 2-0 start.
He enters the game with a streak of 185 consecutive passes without an interception, the longest in the FBS.
"He is making good decisions," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.
"He is very intelligent and takes a lot of pride in being a student of the game. He has a lot of respect for the game and is a humble football player. We are pretty pleased with where he is at this point in the season."
The Panthers (1-1) have the No. 80 passing defense in the country at 237.5 yards per game allowed. They finished last season at No. 127 -- second-worst in the FBS. But outside of that slight improvement, the Panthers feel that while they've been fooled once by the Oklahoma State passing attack, they should be better prepared for round two.
"It's a new year and we're going into this year feeling confident," senior cornerback Avonte Maddox said.
"The first time you really see a team, you're still learning them. But now, you've seen them once and you're seeing them a second time. You kind of know what they've got."
Of course, that goes both ways.
Last season, the Cowboys defense had every bit as much trouble with the Panthers' offense, although Oklahoma State made the key play -- an interception by Oklahoma State cornerback Ramon Richards with 15 seconds remaining.
Pitt particularly utilized the running game to put together long drives and attempt to keep Rudolph and company off the field as much as possible. Running back James Conner had 111 yards and a touchdown, and all-purpose star Quadree Henderson added 95 yards rushing on just seven carries.
Conner has moved on the NFL, but the motion scheme, a veteran offensive line and Henderson remain, which has been enough to keep Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy alert.
"With all their movement, shifts, flying motions, speed sweeps and such, if you aren't gap sound, you can be in some bad positions, and they got us in some bad positions last year," Gundy said this week.
While the Panthers may have a number of looks, they have had trouble in pass protection. Quarterback Max Browne, a graduate transfer from USC, has spent much of his first two games at Pitt on his back side as he has been sacked eight times, including on five occasions against the Nittany Lions.
"I am concerned about protecting him, so we will have to do some things protection-wise," Narduzzi said. "We have given up too many sacks. Period. So something has to change there and it is not just one guy."
The Cowboys are venturing outside Boone Pickens Stadium for the first time in 2017. A nonconference road victory Saturday could lay the foundation for the tough sledding ahead in the Big 12.
"I think we've been fortunate enough to be here for a long enough time that we've been able to build confidence in heading out on the road," Gundy said. "One of the big things, though, is that we have a quarterback that has been here for a long time. In my opinion, that gives you a chance to play well on the road."