Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 24, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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34 OCT. 24, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL F orgive Pittsburgh if it declines to embrace the sneaky upset team label. Or the hat tips for near-topples of Notre Dame. Or the appreciation for the ability to stay in games. Or even the praise for annually picking off a highly ranked team as a heavy underdog. It has gotten a little old. Pitt would actually like to win some of these white-knucklers. Or have its upsets be indicative of the season as a whole instead of a one- off surprise. The 2020 campaign, so far, is a continuation of being "this close." Pitt started 3-2 overall and 2-2 in the ACC, with its first two losses coming by one point apiece. The sec- ond, a 31-30 loss at Boston College Oct. 10, was sealed by a missed extra point in overtime. It followed a home loss to North Carolina State in which the Wolfpack scored the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds left. "We can do do-you-think, do-you- think, do-you-think," head coach Pat Narduzzi said. "We aren't. If you make a couple plays, you're this far away from being it. So that's what I think. I don't know if I can elaborate on it any more than that. "You're a few plays away, and we've got to win it in the fourth quarter, we've got to find a way to finish the darned game." There's the central theme of his six years on the job, and even prior to it. Since 2011, no Football Bowl Subdivi- sion (FBS) team has lost more games by a touchdown or less than Pitt's 32, per ESPN's David Hale. Under Narduzzi, Pitt is 19-17 in one-score contests. That's 51.4 percent of his games. Pitt is hard to blow out, but doesn't wax many teams either. "They need to do a better job of closing teams out, putting teams away and pulling away," Panther- publisher Chris Peak said. "But to do that they need to score more and be better on offense. They just haven't been for a few years now." Two of those 32 losses are to unde- feated Notre Dame teams in which the Panthers pushed the Irish more than anyone anticipated. They'd like to finish the job this time. Notre Dame's last visit to Pitt was a 42-30 victory in 2013. In all likeli- hood, this upcoming game is Pitt's best chance to extend its upset streak. In each of the last four seasons, the Panthers have felled a team that won at least 10 games or finished in the top 15 of the final Associated Press poll. The list of victims is impressive. A year-by-year look: • 2019: UCF (10-3, No. 24) • 2018: Syracuse (10-3, No. 15) • 2017: Miami (10-3, No. 13) • 2016: Clemson (national cham- pion), Penn State (11-3, Big Ten champion, No. 7) That's a résumé fitting of a confer- ence title contender. Except Pitt lost at least five games in each of those seasons, turning the perception of those upsets into adorable "Pitt happens" occurrences rather than a plausible arrival as a regular ACC contender. Instead, the pattern persists. Win a game it shouldn't. Lose a couple games it shouldn't. Pitt is stuck in purgatory, unable to push itself for- ward but strong enough not to fall back. "When people talk about Pitt knocking off really good teams, it's in the context of 'Pitt's not very good, but they manage to do this once a year,'" Peak said. "I think the play- ers and coaches resent that and want to believe they're better, that it's not this little upstart Pitt team knocked off Clemson, Miami or whoever it is. "They want to believe they can play on that level consistently. But when you're losing to NC State and Boston College, you're not helping your cause a lot." This season began with an experi- enced team and reasonable visions of nine-plus wins. Like Notre Dame, Pitt has a third-year starting quar- terback in senior Kenny Pickett, a couple intriguing wide receivers and a veteran offensive line. But the breakthrough has not yet occurred, and signs of one aren't too plentiful. All of a sudden, after two narrow losses, Pitt is staring at a possible 3-4 start to the season. An offense that needed to take a step for- ward remains stale. A stingy defense largely impressed but sprung a few late leaks in both losses. Those are two ingredients of an almost-had-it cocktail. Pickett also sustained an an- kle injury against Boston College that threatens his availability for Notre Dame. The defense, though, has ensured Pitt will be a threat for 60 minutes in just about every game. Narduzzi, a former defensive coordinator, has a defense he can enjoy — even with- out possible NFL first-round pick defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, who opted out of the season. Pitt's opponents have rushed for just 3.2 yards per carry through their first five games, and that's excluding sacks. The Panthers have 25 of those, tops in the FBS and seven more than the next-best team. Their five sacks per game is somehow better than their nation-best 3.92 from last sea- son. They also lead the country in tackles for loss, with 52. Fifth-year senior defensive ends Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver have picked up Twyman's disruptive production, with 7.0 tackles for loss each through five games. Jones also leads college football with 7.0 sacks. GAME PREVIEW: PITTSBURGH Fifth-year senior defensive end Patrick Jones II led the nation with 7.0 sacks through Pitt's first five games. PHOTO BY CHARLES LECLAIRE, USA TODAY SPORTS Still In Neutral The Panthers' potential breakthrough season has been derailed by the same old issues "You're a few plays away, and we've got to win it in the fourth quarter, we've got to find a way to finish the darned game." PITT HEAD COACH PAT NARDUZZI ON TWO ONE-POINT LOSSES

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