ACC Football Notebook: Week 7

Pitt turning heads in Narduzzi’s first season

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Credit Pitt and first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi for flying under the radar for nearly half the college football season, but it has reached the point where the Panthers’ success is no longer a secret.

Pitt enters this weekend’s key Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division game with a 4-1 overall record for the first time since 2009, and they stand 2-0 in ACC play for the first time in the three seasons since they joined the conference.

Narduzzi, who left a successful stint as Michigan State defensive coordinator to take the Panther reins last winter, is one of only five first-year coaches in ACC history to post wins in his first two league games. If Pitt wins in Atlanta on Saturday, he will be just the fourth first-year coach to start out ACC play 3-0 – and the Panthers will hold sole possession of the top spot in the Coastal Division standings.

Again, this is a first-year coach at a program that was picked for a sixth-place division finish by media in attendance at last summer’s ACC Football Kickoff. And as good as the Panthers’ season has been thus far, it could be even better. Pitt’s lone loss came in excruciating fashion on the road against unbeaten and 17th-ranked Iowa.

“They're a team that's one play away from being undefeated,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson noted. “A 6-0 team kicked a 57-yard field goal on the last play to beat them.”

An open date – perhaps well timed – followed the 27-24 Iowa loss, the Panthers dusted off the disappointment to post two straight wins over Coastal Division opponents in their last two outings.

Pitt has impressed despite the loss of reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner to a knee injury in the season opener. The Panthers still boast the conference’s fourth-leading rusher in freshman Qadree Ellison, and returning All-ACC wide junior Tyler Boyd is predictably on track for his third straight 1,000-yard receiving season.

But to the surprise of no one familiar with Narduzzi’s background, the Panthers are making their biggest marks defensively. Pitt enters the Georgia Tech game ranked seventh nationally in total defense (one of four ACC teams among the top seven). The Panthers’ opponents have mustered just under 265 yards per game, and Pitt ranks sixth nationally at defending the run (84.8 yards per game).

Four of Pitt’s five games to date were decided by one possession, with only a 24-7 win over Akron in week two offering anything resembling breathing room. When a writer spoke to Narduzzi about his team’s “resiliency” earlier this week, the Panthers’ coach agreed the term applies – thus far. 

“We’ve had it in a few games this year,” Narduzzi said. “At Iowa we fought through adversity. We haven’t blown anybody out yet, so it’s been there.”

The key to a truly successful season, he added, will be the Panthers finding ways to be consistently resilient.

“Every week it’ll be different with how you handle it – What’s your mentality? How healthy are you?” Narduzzi said. “It’s something that goes week to week. Our guys have done a great job so far, and we’re expecting them to be strong at any point in the game or the season.”


TAR HEELS BRACED FOR DEMON DEACONS

Pitt doesn’t have a monopoly on close games. North Carolina seeks its fifth straight win and attempts to remain unbeaten in ACC play this Saturday night. But the Tar Heels will be hosting a Wake Forest team that has seen its last four games decided by a total of 21 points. That includes last weekend’s 3-0 ACC road win at Boston College, and a 24-16 loss to eighth-ranked Florida State the week prior that went down to the final possession.

“They’ve been in some tough ones,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said of the Deacons. “They are going to fight you all the way till the end, there’s no doubt about it. They’re good on defense. They are 15th in the country in total defense right now. They are going to battle you. Being in a close game to them isn’t going to scare them. They don’t care if they win 3-0, or whatever it is. They are going to fight you ‘til the end. We know it’s going to be a dang battler.”

Wake Forest second-year head coach Dave Clawson concurred.

“This is a year where we have to fight and scrap and find ways to get wins, and at times, steal wins,” Clawson said. “We’ve had five games this year where it has been a one-score game in the fourth quarter. We’ve found a way to win two of them. So, we could be 6-0 or we could 1-5. Our team fights and scraps and plays hard, and even when our execution level isn’t high, that effort allows us to make plays and stay in games.”

The Tar Heels will be coming off an open date and hope to maintain the momentum from their historic 38-31 come-from-behind win at Georgia Tech on Oct. 3. UNC overcame a 21-0 deficit – the largest in school history – in a riveting performance that featured several big plays and a fourth-quarter goal line stand.

But Fedora said his team didn’t spend the last two weeks basking in the glory. Before turning their attention totally to Wake Forest at the first of this week, UNC spent nearly four full practices solely on fundamentals.

“I hope we fixed things on special teams,” Fedora said. “I hope we fixed things offensively, and I hope we fixed things defensively. They were all things, in all three phases, where I thought needed to be adjusted and needed to be fixed. Time will tell, but I think we were able to address some of those issues. We made some needed changes there.”

Wake Forest and UNC will be meeting for the first time since 2012, when the Demon Deacons scored late for an exciting 28-27 win in Winston-Salem. Fedora was in his first year as UNC head coach. This Saturday night will mark Clawson’s first exposure to the in-state rivalry.

“Last week we went against the best defense in the country (at Boston College), and this week we are going against one of the best offenses in the ACC and one of the best offenses in the country.” Clawson noted. “They run a lot of plays in a short amount of time, and their defense right now is doing a great job of preventing explosive plays, keeping the ball in front of them and getting off the field without giving up points.  

“We have to play a very complete football game on both sides of the ball this week to play and compete against North Carolina.”


SEMINOLES MOVE ON

Florida State met one challenge against rival Miami last weekend, overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit for an emotional 29-24 win. But now the eighth-ranked Seminoles must turn their attention to a Louisville squad that enters this Saturday’s game at Bobby Dodd with a 2-3 record that FSU coach Jimbo Fisher says could easily be 5-0.

“They have three losses, but all of them have been right to the wire,” Fisher noted in sizing up the Cardinals’ season to date. “Clemson, they were there in two minutes, ready to score and tie or win it. Auburn, they were right in it at the end. Had some mistakes in the game, could have won the game. Houston, 34-31. So a very good football team. You watch them on film, buddy, they're well coached and do a great job. So we've got to put (the Miami) behind us and get ready to play another great game against Louisville this week.”

Florida State’s 27-game winning streak against ACC opposition is a testament to Fisher’s troops to maintain an even keel – even following a big rivalry game – and he says the Seminoles must keep that mindset come Saturday.

“It's the next step,” Fisher said. “It's part of the evolution. Get used to playing big games, get used to playing rivalries. That rivalry is over. Now you've got to get ready to play. Again, that is part of the evolution this week of growing and understanding. Back to work. That's all great. Moving on. We had our little celebration afterwards and a little bit the day after. Now it's on to Louisville. Understand that each game is … the biggest game is the next game. That's part of our evolution, which I'm anxious to watch us take on this week.”


HOKIES REGROUP

Reeling from two straight losses – including a 17-13 setback against Pitt in their ACC opener, Virginia Tech faced a near must-win situation last Friday night against visiting NC State.

The Hokies responded with a 28-13 victory over the Wolfpack that squared their overall record at 3-3. With a 1-1 ACC record heading into Saturday’s game at Miami, Virginia Tech remains in the Coastal Division race with six league games still ahead.

Head coach Frank Beamer credited his staff for the turnaround.

“That’s when coaching makes a difference,” Beamer said. “Anyone can coach when things are smooth, and silky smooth and going well. That’s when you find out who the good coaches are when it’s a little rough and people are doubting you and not many good things are being said about you and that’s when you find out your good coaches.

“I thought we had a good coaching staff last week for sure and I think the way it came about is something to build on. From a defensive standpoint, we’ve got some young guys. Those young freshmen secondary guys, they got a bit battered last week, they played a little better in the run support and that helped. Then I think offensively, we got some weapons that showed up last week. If we just take it and build on it, we’ve got the makings of a really good football team.”

Beamer looks for a stern test this week from the Hurricanes, who claimed last year’s meeting between the teams in Blacksburg by an eye-opening 30-6 score.

“They came in here and kicked us like we don’t get kicked very much,” Beamer said. “They ran 53 times, 364 yards rushing. They didn’t throw it very much; they didn’t need to.”

Beamer may not offer a fiery revenge-themed pregame talk prior this Saturday’s rematch at Sun Life Stadium, but last season’s rout is sure to be mentioned.

“I’ll talk about what’s reality and the reality of it all is they came in here and kicked our tail,” Beamer said.


SETTLING ON A LEADER

Injuries have forced Boston College into a game of musical quarterbacks involving redshirt freshman Troy Flutie and true freshman Jeff Smith, but that could be changing heading into Saturday’s game at fifth-ranked Clemson.

“I am going to settle on one quarterback,” head coach Steve Addazio said. “I’m going to announce that later in the week. As I said from the beginning, (rotating quarterbacks) wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it’s what I needed to do to amply figure out which guy (would start). First, I wanted to get experience for both of them and also I needed to see if one of them could really separate (himself). So until that point, that’s what we thought was best. I think now we’re getting to that point where we’re going to settle in a bit and see where that brings us right now. That’s where it is.”

Even after Addazio makes his call, he stressed that “nothing is etched in stone.”

“What you’re doing is giving both guys ample opportunities to show you what they can do,” Addazio said. “That doesn’t mean it’s over forever. We’ve got a body of work now, and you’re evaluating that and trying to go in the right direction. Now, if you pick a guy and he fails miserably, we’ll be back at it for another week.

“I think that’s all you can do. Usually when you pick two, it’s because you don’t have one that’s ready. So in the same breath, you’re trying to develop young players. You’re trying to give them some experience that matters.”


SPURRIER WILL BE REMEMBERED

Veteran coach Steve Spurrier’s decision to retire at midseason prompted several of his ACC counterparts into moments of reflection.

Before making his mark at Florida and South Carolina, Spurrier proved his head coaching meddle with a successful three-year stint at Duke, unveiling an exciting brand of football that culminated in the Blue Devils’ claiming the 1989 conference championship.

“I have great respect for Coach Spurrier,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who competed against Spurrier as both an SEC head coach and an assistant.  “My brother was a teammate of his at University of Florida,  so I was exposed to Steve long, long ago.  The sad part for me is I think college football certainly lost one of its very greatest the business has ever seen.  I'm telling you, as an offensive coordinator in that league, when he was a head coach in the SEC, I just admired what they did and how they did it and how consistently he did it, and it didn't matter where he was or what he was doing.”

Spurrier always expressed a great appreciation for his tenure at Duke, and Cutcliffe saw it first-hand over the past few years.

“We've had him in,” Cutcliffe said. “We had a 25‑year celebration of their ACC Championship team, and we had him come in.  I had him visit briefly with our team.  I talked with him prior to taking this job, and you could sense and hear his respect and passion for the university.  There's no question that he has a fond spot in his heart for Duke.  Not only was he a head coach here, he was a successful offensive coordinator here, which preceded any head coaching job he had … He knows the place very, very well, and, again, I think he certainly has great respect for the university and every aspect of it.”

Even as Clemson prepared for this week’s game against Boston College, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney took time out to speak with Spurrier by phone on Tuesday morning. Clemson’s intense in-state rivalry with South Carolina, prompting some (usually) good-natured sparring between the two, one of which Swinney laughingly re-created for reporters.

“The funniest one to me is someone asked me about me and Coach Spurrier, and I just said that ‘we get along, we're fine, we're just different. He's from Mars, I'm from Pluto.’ … Then he comes back and says, ‘I don't think Dabo knows Pluto ain't a planet anymore.’ So I'm like ‘Dadgum, Pluto was a planet when I was (a student) at Alabama.

“I missed that news flash along the way. Then, lo and behold, we finally beat them last year and guess what has happened? Pluto has made a comeback. Pluto is now a planet once again.”