For the 3rd time since 2012, the Pitt Panthers football team will open their season against the Youngstown State Penguins, a team who is one of the best in Football Championship Subdivision(FCS) play. In fact, these same Penguins pulled off a huge upset vs. the Panthers at Heinz Field in a 31-17 blowout in 2012. The man difference between that loss and their 45-37 Pitt win in 2015 was the fact that the first time these two teams played it was in Head Coach Paul Chryst’s first season. The 2015 victory was in current HC Pat Narduzzi’s first season, and he hopes to make it two in a row vs. the Penguins.
“We face a team in Youngstown, 12-4 record a year ago, played in the National Championship game, got beat by JMU, very good team, had several guys drafted. Said Narduzzi “When you look at Youngstown, they’re a very disciplined football team. They’re tough. I would say very similar to what we are. They’re well-coached.” In that FCS National Championship Game, the Penguins lost to James Madison University 28-14.
The Penguins are coached by Bo Pelini who is in his third season with the Penguins. Like Narduzzi, Pelini is also a Youngstown native. Before YSU, Pelini was the head coach at Nebraska for seven seasons (2008-14). Narduzzi (Ursuline) and Pelini (Cardinal Mooney) starred at rival Youngstown high schools. In their last meeting against each other, Ursuline routed Mooney, 35-0, in a game that decided the 1984 Steel Valley Conference title.
“Bo Pelini and I go back a long way. Said Narduzzi “Shane Montgomery, we go back a long way, the offensive coordinator, and Carl [Pelini], shoot, first time I met him, he was the head high school coach at Austintown-Fitch High School back at some point, and I’ve known him since then.” Narduzzi has deep ties to Youngstown and YSU. His father, the late Bill Narduzzi, was the Penguins’ head coach from 1975-85, twice leading them to the NCAA Division II playoffs, including the 1979 national title game.
The 2012 loss to the Penguins was Pitt’s only loss against an FCS opponent with a 14-1 record. As they prepare for this 2017 Season opener at Heinz Field on Saturday, Pitt will look to improve on a record of 82-43-2 (.654) all-time in openers. Since the 2000 season, Pitt is 12-5 (.706) in its initial game, including 2-0 under Narduzzi.
The Panthers are looking to build off consecutive eight-win seasons. The Panthers have finished second in the ACC’s Coastal Division each of the past two years under Narduzzi. This will be Pitt’s 128th season of College Football.
For the first time since 2013, they will play a football season without record-setting RB James Conner who left for the NFL last season and will be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him in the 3rd round. Conner set Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) records in touchdowns and is 2nd to Heisman-Winning RB Tony Dorsett in all-time rushing yards.
To replace him, the Panthers will go with the one who succeeded him in 2015, Junior RB Quadree Ollison who filled in for Conner when he went down with injury and was diagnosed with non-hodskins lymphoma. That year, Ollison rushed for 1,121 (the 5th Freshman to do so) and 11 TDS which was good enough to earn ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. With Conner returning in 2016, Ollison didn’t play much, but he now has an opportunity to show Narduzzi that he once again made the right choice in Conner’s absence. Behind him will be Junior Darren Hall.
On his running backs, Narduzzi had this to say “Quadree has obviously had more reps lying back there, and we’ve seen him do it. Darrin Hall has gotten good. I could throw more ‘ors’ on there as you want it after that if you wanted me to do that, but there are some young guys that have stepped up. I mean, AJ Davis has been impressive.”
At Fullback, they will be missing junior George Aston, who is missing time with injury. Aston had ten scores (5 rushing, five receiving) in 2016. Replacing him is senior Colton Lively.
But the other huge change is a quarterback who was held down by Nate Peterman the past two years. Peterman is now a member of the Buffalo Bills, who selected him in the NFL Draft. Replacing him is graduate transfer Max Browne who knows a little bit about season openers as he opened last season as USC’s starting QB vs. Alabama before a national audience. Browne’s experience and poise earned him the starting QB Job.
The Offensive Line lack G Brandon Johnson and T Adam Bisnowaty, who were also NFL bound, This Saturday, the Panthers line will be Junior T Brian O’Neill, who is also known to catch a TD or two, senior G Alex Officer, freshman C Jimmy Morrissey, Senior G Brandon Hodges and T Jaryd Jones-Smith. At receiver, they will have senior deep threat Jester Weah and All-American all-purpose junior Quadree Henderson. At TE will be SE Matt Flanagan.
On defense, then Ends will be Jr Dewayne Hendrix and Sr. Edward Allen, and the interior linemen are Jr Shane Roy and Sr Keyson Camp. At LB, will be returning JR Elijah Ziese and sophomore Oluawssen Idowu on the outside and sophomore Saleem Blackwell on the inside. In the secondary, Sr Avonte Maddox and sophomore Dane Jackson will man the corners, while so Jay Stocker and junior Dennis Briggs are the safeties.
To replace record-setting K Chris Blewitt, Pitt will have freshman Alex Kessman doing the kicking and with SR Ryan Winslow doing the punting. And Henderson handling the return duties.
Missing from the Panthers will be S Jordan Whitehead, T Quintin Wirginis, and T Alex Bookser, who are serving suspensions. When asked about how he feels about the guys replacing them, Narduzzi replied “I feel good. I feel a lot better than I would have felt if I found out or made that decision this week. I’d be like, oh, my gosh, can we get time. We’ve had a chance to prepare, and we’ll be fine.”
The Panthers know that even though they have a huge game at #6 Penn State the following week, they know not to overlook these Penguins, or it could be 2012 all over again. “Put it this way: There are some things we’re going to hold, but we’re going out to win that football game. That’s what it comes down to.” Said Narduzzi.
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