I like Pitt football. They’re not the team I live and die with (that’s Wisconsin) or a team that’s strongly on my radar (like Notre Dame or the Big Ten in general), but I lived in the Steel City for nine good years (1999-2007) and came to enjoy rooting for the Panther program. That hasn’t changed since I left, nor has the fact that I’d like to see them shut up a good friend of mine who is a Penn State season-ticket holder. And I find myself wondering if this is the year that Pitt can get off the treadmill of mediocrity.
Pitt has finished the regular season at 6-6 for four straight years. Each year has produced a bowl appearance, an achievement that becomes less significant with each passing year. They’ve lost three of those bowl games.
This is a program that fired Dave Wannstedt after he went 42-31 from 2005-10, and was never happy with Walt Harris after he rebuilt the team and went 25-13 with a BCS bowl trip over his final three years of 2002-04. The current run of mediocrity makes one wonder if Pitt can ever break the cycle.
Instability at head coach has been the big problem. Pitt hired Todd Graham to replace Wannstedt. After a 6-6 year, Graham bolted for Arizona State. The next hire was Paul Chryst, who after three straight 6-6 years went back to Wisconsin, where he had been the offensive coordinator. Now it’s Pat Narduzzi, who orchestrated the outstanding Michigan State defenses of recent seasons, who gets the chance to return Pitt to relevance.
That’s the context of recent Pitt football history. The fan base longs for a return of the glory days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Tony Dorsett led the way to a national title in 1976 and Dan Marino was at the helm for some great years in 1979-82. The decision to fire Wannstedt and the agitation that existed over Harris, who left voluntarily for Stanford, indicates the Panther faithful sees that as realistic. The on-field results keep showing a program that can’t get out of its own way.
The hopes for this season are built around a fantastic running back in James Connor. He was the ACC MVP a year ago, and his 2,564 career yards place him 10th on the all-time list of Pitt rushers. Connor will almost certainly move up to second on this list, with 3,271 yards being the magic number.
That moves Connor ahead of names like Curtis Martin, Lesean McCoy and Craig Heyward. No one is going to touch Dorsett’s 6,526 career yards, but Connor is in very impressive company in an era when the workload for running backs isn’t what it used to be.
Can he get enough help? The offensive line returns three starters, but is young, with only one senior projected to start. There’s a good wide receiver on hand in Tyler Boyd. Can Narduzzi find the quarterback to get him the football?
Pitt’s new offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, ran the attack at Arkansas last year for Bret Bielama. It was ground-heavy and power-oriented, so Connor has the right system to play in. Regardless of how the quarterback situation works out, the bigger question is probably going to be how quickly Narduzzi can get the defense up to speed.
The Panthers had problems pressuring the quarterback last year and they didn’t play well in the secondary. They return starters on both the line and the secondary this year and Narduzzi excelled at both attacking the quarterback and teaching pass coverage when he was at Michigan State. It’s a huge stretch to think Pitt’s defense will even resemble those Sparty put on the field, but if nothing else, the new coach and some more experienced players will help them improve.
What’s a fair measuring stick for Pitt getting off the treadmill? Let’s start with an eight-win regular season. It won’t be easy. Youngstown and Akron are the only games that can be penciled in as wins, and given Pitt’s recent history of blowing games like this, make sure that pencil has an eraser. They play non-conference games at Iowa and at home against Notre Dame, along with their ACC slate.
The good news is they don’t draw Florida State or Clemson in the non-division part of ACC play. The Coastal is wide open. Pitt can win or lose against any of Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Miami, Duke and Virginia.
I want to pick an 8-4 or 9-3 year and maybe even a division title. If Narduzzi stays long enough, he’s the right guy for the job. But first, I have to see some consistency from a team that can’t seem to stay out of its own way.