This season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will host the Pittsburgh Panthers for the first time since 2012 on October 13th. Pitt is coming off of an overall down year despite getting a few huge victories. The Panthers also lost a few key pieces to the NFL Draft a few months ago.
1. What’s your overall impression of how Pitt’s 2017 season went?
The season was really a disappointment. I remember a local media guy predicted a 5-7 season at the beginning of the year and was roundly criticized for it. I thought Pitt would certainly finish no worse than 6-6 and thought seven or eight wins was more likely. But after starting quarterback Max Browne got injured, the season went downhill in a hurry.
The Panthers did get a nice win at the end of year by beating then No. 2 Miami but didn’t make a bowl game for the first time since 2007. They were overmatched on numerous occasions and utterly blown out by in-state rival Penn State and Oklahoma State. Mostly, it was just an ugly season after the team won eight games the year before and had knocked off undefeated Clemson.
2. Will Pitt be better or worse in 2018?
Hopefully better! Pitt lost a lot of talent from the 2016 team so that made the 2017 frustrations a bit more understandable. It was still worse than I anticipated but whenever you lose a starting quarterback and have no experience behind him, it’s usually trouble. The team again lost some key players to the NFL this year, including their best offensive lineman, best safety, and best cornerback. But they have a lot of young guys returning, too, and they will all hopefully improve.
The key, as it is for many teams, is at quarterback. Pitt played true freshman Kenny Pickett last year after injuries and inefficient play forced him into action. And while he had a great game against Miami, he’s still somewhat of a question mark. Last year was so bad, though, that even with the losses, I expect a little more out of them. We’ll see if that’s wishful thinking or not.
3. What’s going to be the biggest change between last year’s Pitt team and this one?
A lot of pieces return but the biggest change is probably in the secondary. Pitt returns a lot on defense, but also loses two key players in the secondary in safety Jordan Whitehead and cornerback Avonte Maddox as both guys were drafted.
The good news is that the Panthers have been recruiting that area hard so they have some talent there. The question is if the younger guys are going to be ready. Part of the problem is that the secondary had already been among the worst in the nation with those two guys. Pitt may be able to replace them somewhat but they still have a lot of ground to make up to even have a respectable pass defense. Whitehead was an NFL Draft early entrant and Maddox had been recognized by coaches as possibly Pitt’s best cover guy for all four of his seasons here.
4. Who are the big name players to watch for Pitt this year?
Pickett is the one that has Pitt fans talking the most. The team burned his redshirt in the middle of the year but he didn’t play much until the end. He came off the bench in the next to last game against Virginia Tech and played pretty well. Then he started in the Miami finale and again looked solid. Beyond that, on offense, there are a lot of questions. Pitt’s skill guys didn’t have a lot of production last year, in part because of all of the problems under center. There are some promising underclassmen but, again, more questions than answers at this point.
Defensively, the guy fans are most anxious to see is probably Paris Ford, one of the top recruits that Narduzzi’s has landed in his time here. He didn’t play as a true freshman last year but is ready to go. He could be the best player in the secondary almost immediately and has the look of a difference-maker. He was recruited as a safety but played some at cornerback in the spring, leading to a possible position move.
5. What’s your prediction for this team’s game against Notre Dame this year?
I always hate predictions this soon because there are so many variables at this point. But based on Pitt still seemingly being in a rebuilding mode and playing the game on the road, early indications for a Pitt win don’t look real good, obviously.
Pitt has given Notre Dame some trouble before the Irish are one of those teams that opponents get up to play for. But the Irish look like a Top 25 team while the Panthers have a lot of question marks at virtually every position on offense. Until some of those are sorted out, it’s hard to expect them to win a game like that. We do know that Pitt has the ability to pull off some mammoth upsets (i.e. No. 2 Clemson and Miami teams in the past two seasons alone) but seeing those things happen and predicting them to happen are two different things.
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