Pitt’s Division Title Defense Begins vs. Virginia

[Pittsburgh,Pa] For the first time since 1977, the Pitt Panthers football team will begin the new season defending a championship, and while it wasn’t a National Championship like it was in 1976, the fact that it was their first-ever Divisional championship makes it all the more historic and special.

The Panthers (7-7, 6-2 ACC) shocked all of college football when they locked up the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Coastal Division in 2018, which earned the Coastal Division Trophy and even though they were beaten 42-10 by the National Champion Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and 14-13 by Stanford in the Sun Bowl, 2018 was a successful year for Pitt.

The Panthers  hope to defend their  title as they prepare to take on Virginia (8-5, 4-4 ACC in 2018) Saturday evening at Heinz Field. (7:30pm)

“All right. Great to be here today. Obviously, game week. It’s exciting around here; lots of things to do. Running around.” Said Pitt Head Coach Pat Narduzzi “Just excited. I think our kids are excited about camp ending. I think they’re excited about having an opponent to play instead of each other.”

Last season, the Panthers beat Virginia 23-13 in Charlottesville on the heels of running back Darrin Hall’s 229 yards rushing( including runs of 41 and 75 yards). Hall also scored 3 touchdowns. To beat Virginia in 2019 Pitt will have to do so without Hall and fellow RB Quadree Ollison(Both Graduated).The duo made history last season becoming the first Pitt RBs to rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season.

“It’s quality or quantity. Which one do you want?” Said Narduzzi regarding his running game. “You can look at it, I mean, sometimes the opener, what do you do well as an offense? The one thing I know we’re going to do well is run the football. Whether it’s four different schemes you’re going to run, you’re going to see a power scheme, I can tell you that. We don’t have the same guys we had. Ollison is playing in Atlanta. Darrin Hall is in Green Bay. It’s a different football team. Doesn’t matter what happened a year ago.”

Leading that pack will be Junior RB AJ Davis (143 yards, 0 TDS in 2018) he and Sophomore Todd Sibley Jr will lead a group a freshmen (Including 4-star recruit Mychale Salahuddin) that will hope to produce the same consistency (If not the same success) as Hall in Ollison.

But the key to the Panthers offense is Junior QB Kenny Pickett (1,969 yards, 12 TDs in 2018) who only passed for 61 yards in last season’s win vs. Virginia. Pickett hopes to benefit from new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who was the Pittsburgh Steelers QB coach from 2004-06.

“Our passing game has to be dynamic, too.” Said Narduzzi “When we throw it, let’s compete it, you know? I guess we find out Saturday night. We’re going to throw the ball better, too, throw it more often.”

Pickett’s targets will be seniors WR Tasir Mack (557 yards, TD 22.3 yards/game in 2018) and Maurice Ffrench (515 yards 6 TDs in 2018) and Tre Tipton. They’re also hoping that 6-4, 220 Senior Aaron Matthews lives up to his potential in 2019.

“Tre Tipton has been outstanding, really has.” Said Narduzzi. “He’s been special. He’s as engaged as he’s been since he’s been here.”

On defense, the Panthers will be without DE Rashad Weaver, who tore his ACL in training camp, which Narduzzi described as a major blow. As for the linebackers: “Phil Campbell and Cam Bright are doing well at the Star.” Said Narduzzi “I think we can win a lot of football games. A year ago, it was Oluwaseun Idowu, I wasn’t sure who was going to go in next.”

As for his Cornerbacks, Narduzzi had this to say: “We have three starting corners. We can rotate those guys, keep our corners fresh. I feel the same way really at the safety spot with Damar Hamlin, who is outstanding, and then Jay Stocker, Paris Ford are three guys that we can rotate those guys, we can keep them fresh.”

The Panthers will be facing a Virginia team who’s predicted as favorites to win the Coastal Division this season. Pitt was predicted to finish 4th. This is 2019. Last year was 2018.” Said Narduzzi “This is totally new teams, new people. We don’t have the same guys we had. They’re the pre-season favorites. I don’t know if that’s media. I don’t even know who votes on all that stuff. But there’s a reason they’re there. There’s a reason we’re picked fourth. So, our guys got to step up.”

Narduzzi had this to say about Virginia “Bronco Mendenhall does an incredible job. Done a great job building that program since his arrival. Bryce Perkins. Defensively Bryce Hall at corner, a Pennsylvania native who is a super kid, got a chance to talk with him down at the ACC Media Day, just a tremendous kid. Obviously a big, big dude. Really good corner for them. Then Snowden, Charles Snowden, is another guy up front. We have to know where those guys are at all times.”

Their main target will be Virginia QB Bryce Perkins (2,680 yards, 25 TDs, 923 rush yards in 2018) “We’ve prepared for different athletic guys, have changed things. I don’t think we did anything special for him last year when we played in that game.” Said Narduzzi “I forget who the scout quarterback was that week. Obviously, Bryce can throw it and he can run it and scramble. It’s getting our kids used to what we need.”

Before Saturday’s game, the Panthers will honor former Panther Bill Fralic, who passed away last year “This will be our first game since the passing of Bill Fralic.” Said Narduzzi “As a tribute to him and his family, especially his wife Susan, we’ll have his brother-in-law Tom Brown, former Pitt fullback, be our honorary captain. Bill Fralic was a pretty nasty football player. We’ll have ’79’ towels given out before the game also in a tribute to Bill Fralic.”

Please e-mail Ray at ray@urbanmediatoday.com

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