After back-to-back one-point losses to North Carolina State and Boston College, Pittsburgh’s road gets tougher as the Panthers face No. 13 Miami and No. 4 Notre Dame over the next two weeks.
For the Panthers to avoid falling below .500, they’ll have to pull off an upset in one of those two games, the type of upset that’s become a hallmark of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt.
The job won’t be easy, as the Panthers (3-2, 2-2) head to Miami on Saturday to face the Hurricanes (3-1, 2-1). Miami fell 42-17 to No. 1 Clemson in Death Valley last week.
The Panthers are double-digit underdogs to the Hurricanes. Pulling off an upset will be particularly difficult with quarterback Kenny Pickett still nursing an ankle injury sustained in the Boston College game.
Narduzzi said Pickett has had a good week of practice.
“Kenny’s worked his tail off,” Narduzzi said. “Kenny’s tough. I mean, you saw him finish the game. Is he 100 percent healthy? No, but I feel good with where he is right now.”
Pickett’s 266-yard effort against the Eagles vaulted him to the top spot in passing yardage in the country (1,389).
King leads Canes
Pickett’s counterpart on the other side of the field will be D’Eriq King, a transfer from Houston who has re-invigorated the Miami offense. King is a true dual-threat who has the second-most rushing yards on the Hurricanes behind only starting running back Cam’Ron Harris. King posted 84 rushing yards against Clemson, his highest total so far this season.
Narduzzi has been impressed by King’s play, and said he’s different than other mobile quarterbacks Pitt has faced.
“He’s got a little different burst to him; the guy can run,” Narduzzi said. “I mean, when you watch him run through Clemson’s defense, you know there’s some good speed on the field. ... He’s got a little different gear.”
Pitt’s defense will have to be on its toes to shut down King in both the running and passing game on top of having to deal with the Hurricanes’ up-tempo offense.
While the Panthers have been able to shut down opponents’ rushing games this season — the unit is allowing an average of just 52 rushing yards per game — they’ve struggled at times in coverage and allowed big pass plays too often in recent weeks.
“We’ve got to eliminate the big passes; we’ve got to play good in coverage,” Narduzzi said. “We had one-quarter coverage where you could say the corner was on an island that we got beat last week and we had one cover 3, which we should not get beat deep with that, and our pressure wasn’t good.”
Adjusting on defense
Despite giving up five passing touchdowns of 25-plus yards in their past two games, Narduzzi said there won’t be any major defensive changes, just minor adjustments.
“We’re going to tweak it, whatever we have to do in coverage,” Narduzzi said. “We’re not going to put in a new front or a new coverage or a new blitz. I think that’s a recipe for disaster.
“I’ve had different coordinators. I’ve seen different coordinators through the years try to do that, and from my experience that never works out. Never works out well, ever.”
While facing two ranked opponents in back-to-back weeks following two close losses isn’t ideal, Narduzzi has no qualms about his players being able to put those losses behind them.
“Our kids are resilient; our coaches are,” Narduzzi said. “It’s the next game. We’re not worried about what happened last week. It’s hard whether it’s a one-point loss or a 15-point loss. It’s hard, but we get our kids’ backs. That’s our job as coaches ... I feel good with where our kids’ attitudes are. Their mental and physical preparation is there and that’s all we can ask for. Our kids will go out and play hard.
“Will we be perfect? No. But we’re gonna play our tails off.”