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Pitt football turns in strong second season under Pat Narduzzi

Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi just wrapped up his second regular season with the Panthers. Much like the first year, his follow-up season can only be described as a success.

Perfect? Nope. Ideal? Nah. But Narduzzi has continued to make good progress with a program that was mired in mediocrity upon his arrival.

The pre-Narduzzi era saw four consecutive 6-6 years under Todd Graham and Paul Chryst. The year before that, in his final year at the helm, Dave Wannstedt was 7-5. Narduzzi has won eight regular season games two years in a row and done the most winning at Pitt since 2008 and 2009.

To be fair to his predecessor, Chryst, he assembled most of the talent that Narduzzi is now winning with. However, there are a few reasons why Narduzzi now deserves credit.

First, he's avoided the pitfall losses that Chryst suffered. Chryst dropped an ugly game against Youngstown State in his debut. For those that remember it, it wasn't only a loss, but a convincing one. To lose to an FCS program on your home field in that manner is beyond unacceptable. Chryst not only managed that, but also dropped games to Akron and a very beatable Navy team. Narduzzi has yet to sustain such a disappointment. He's won the games he was supposed to, lost only to good teams, and has upended a couple of very good teams on the way.

Narduzzi is also winning already with some of his own players, which are true underclassmen. Narduzzi not only kept Jordan Whitehead, Quadree Henderson, and others from Paul Chryst's 2015 recruiting class, but added key players since coming here that have played key roles. While most of his additions to that class are question marks, linebacker Saleem Brightwell has already made an impact this year and has the look of a potential star. A few guys from his 2016 class, too, have already made impacts as true freshmen, such as Chawntez Moss, Maurice Ffrench, Amir Watts, Aaron Mathews, and others.

Don't forget, too, that Narduzzi and his staff made a key decision at quarterback. The move to anoint Nathan Peterman over Chad Voytik was curious to many fans - myself included. But when you look back at the past two years when Peterman has been at the helm, it was clearly the right decision. Peterman has flourished and while he's not a guy that will go out and throw for 300 yards, he's also more than just a game manager. He's made a lot of accurate throws this year, and threw for 26 touchdowns to only six interceptions. He's not only limited his mistakes but was very productive. Simply put, if Chryst was still here, adding a guy like Peterman probably doesn't happen. And when you consider that Chad Voytik struggled at Arkansas State this year, even being benched while playing at a lower level, the change to Peterman was even more clearly the right decision.

Collectively, the offense has been quite a sight. They scored 76 points on Saturday against Syracuse and are tenth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging over 42 points per game. Under coordinator Matt Canada, the Panthers have scored at will and Narduzzi deserves a lot of credit for landing him. This was not only one of the top offenses in the ACC, but the entire country.

The defense has struggled quite a bit, but that's been a two-sided coin. They've given up a lot of points and big chunks of yardage, but that's also been the product of a porous secondary. The front seven in the running game has performed admirably. So much so, in fact, that the Panthers' run defense is ninth in the nation. Those guys haven't only gotten the job done, they've been absolute beasts.

The other thing to like about this team is, of course, the big wins. Sure, we can talk about the coulda, woulda, shoulda games against North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma State, but the Panthers also had some absolutely huge wins. The Penn State win was already big but is even more of a landmark win given that the Nittany Lions are in the top ten. And obviously, to beat Clemson on the road is just an incredible feat. But one thing fans shouldn't overlook is also the win against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were 8-4 as well this season and that is looking more and more like a quality win.

Fans also shouldn't discount the number of insane injuries the Panthers have had:

  • Within the first two games, they lost their top returning wide receiver (Dontez Ford) for half of the year and a starting linebacker (Elijah Zeise) for the whole season.
  • Last year's No. 3 receiver and candidate to start this season, Zach Challingworth, missed the entire season.
  • Secondary starters Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead both missed a quarter of the season - Maddox's replacement Phillipie Motley has also missed time.
  • Ditto for linebacker Mike Caprara and wide receiver Tre Tipton, who both missed several games.
  • Damar Hamlin was a potential starter at cornerback but missed the first several games then had to work his way into the rotation.
  • Starting defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett has missed a couple of games and fellow starting tackle Shakir Soto has played, but been banged up. Starting end Rori Blair has missed time.
  • Backup Chawntez Moss, who at one point even looked like the best back on the team, has missed a few games.

To have the kind of success the team has with so many key guys out for several games makes it that much more impressive. All teams sustain injuries. But Pitt has had almost ten starters or potential starters miss about a quarter of the season or more. Add in the challenging schedule and this has really been a strong year.

Overall, it's really tough to be disappointed. I can see being a little frustrated at what might have been with some of the close losses. But as I said in the comments section of the Syracuse post, those work both ways. Pitt was fortunate to defeat Georgia Tech and Penn State in very close games that could have easily been lost.

Narduzzi, I'm convinced, has this thing moving in the right direction. He's already had some degree of success and the next step is trying to get Pitt back to nine and ten wins. They have work to do and need to claim a Division title. But two years into the Narduzzi experiment, it's very hard to not be sold. They'll have a shot at nine with the bowl game and that would make this an even more special year.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Panther of the Week: Mike Young

Pitt’s senior big man, Mike Young, took care of business and earned this week’s Panther of the Week award.

Can we settle this? Is it Mike Young or Michael Young? The truth is that I don’t care what he prefers, as we should call him whatever he wants if he continues to have a week like he just had for Pitt. The week saw the Panthers finish with two wins in two games and the senior big man had a huge hand in both games.

Young kicked off the week on Tuesday with 24 points and 10 boards in a 75-70 victory over defending Ivy League champion, Yale. Young wasn’t satisfied with just those numbers though, as he added in four blocks and three assists in the game. To top everything off, Young was also perfect from the free throw line, going six for six.

The senior continued his hot week on Friday to help Pitt to a double digit win over Morehead State. Young again topped the 20 point mark by landing right on it. He chipped in six rebounds, four assists, and a block to help Pitt climb to 5-1 this season.

Young averaged 22 points last week and held a very hot hand on his shooting. He shot 59% from the field and 90% from the charity stripe, finishing 9 of 10, in that regard. As Pitt fans have become accustomed over the years, free throw shooting has not always been a strength of Pitt teams. If someone as important as Young keeps knocking them down at this rate, it could go a long way in being a successful one for the Panthers.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

NCAA Volleyball Bracket 2016: Pitt volleyball team makes NCAA Tournament, faces Dayton

Pitt was a combined 48-15 heading into this year in head coach Dan Fisher's first two years with the Panthers. Despite that success, the team hadn't made the NCAA Tournament.

The third time was the charm.

With a 24-8 record (including 14-5 in the ACC), Pitt's women's volleyball team made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 on Sunday night. The Panthers will face Dayton in the first round at State College. Should they get by 30-1 Dayton, they'd be likely to face No. 16 overall seed Penn State on their home court.

The team, understandably, was pumped. Here was the reaction from their watch party:

WE'RE GOING DANCING!!!! HAIL TO PITT! Pitt will take on Dayton at Penn State!#H2P pic.twitter.com/zV2P3eKg3s — Pitt Volleyball (@Pitt_VB) November 28, 2016

Pitt's first game against Dayton will be at 5:00 p.m. this Friday. You'll be able to see it on WatchESPN.

Here's the full bracket. Volleyball's works a little different than the basketball bracket. In volleyball, they seed the Top 16 teams - hence the missing numbers after that.

I've watched the team all year this season, catching almost every game when they were televised/on ESPN3, and they can really play. Their resume looked solid, but I felt they should have made it last year and they didn't, so you never know. But overall, there was a lot to like about what they accomplished. They were 3-1 against Top 25 teams they faced, including a massive win over ACC champions North Carolina. The Panthers were the only ACC team, in fact, that beat the Tar Heels all year, so that was a key victory.

Pitt also played well down the stretch. They had a pretty front-loaded schedule, so they really needed to clean up at the end. And they did. The Panthers missed out on beating Duke but won the other ten games in their last 11. Despite the weakened competition, that was very impressive.

Regardless of what happens in the tournament, the program is in good hands, too. Pitt loses senior middle blocker Jenna Potts and Maria Genitsaridi, but that's it. Potts is a huge star for the team, but the Panthers return almost all of their other production next season. Freshman middle blocker Layne Van Buskirk, for example, is one of the most efficient hitters in the ACC and should fill Potts' role nicely. At 6'3", she's often been the tallest player on the court and is a fine blocker and striker - especially for her age.

I'm not only excited to see them in the NCAAs but also really looking forward to what this team can do next year. They have a lot of talent coming back, including all of their big hitters, including Mariah Bell, Stephanie Williams, and Nika Markovic - two of which are freshmen. To have so many freshmen playing big roles on an NCAA Tournament team tells you the program is in good shape going forward. Losing Potts, the school's all-time blocks leader, will be big, but there's just a lot of talent coming back.

Congrats to the volleyball team on a special year. Check them out on Friday.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

The Turning Point: Personal Foul

A personal foul on Pitt’s last first half drive put Syracuse in a hole that they could never dig out of yesterday.

Yeah, you have fun picking a specific turning point in a 76-61 college football game. Go ahead, I dare you to pick one. Unfortunately, for me, I have to select one and I have to do it without getting cute and saying, “the coin flip” or something like that. I’ll give it a shot, though.

I really think with all the back and forth, you have to look at Pitt’s final drive to close the first half that keyed their victory over Syracuse.

The score was 28-21 and was already looking like it could be a back and forth tilt. Pitt took a Syracuse kickoff back to their own 36-yard line to try and add to the lead, with only a little over 90 seconds remaining and two timeouts. After five plays, the Panthers found themselves still with two timeouts remaining and down to the Orange 35-yard line with first and ten. There timeouts remaining was good because Pitt only had only a little over 30 ticks on the clock to work with before halftime. That’s when it happened:

Nate Peterman scrambled for an eight yard gain and on his way out of bounds was hit by a Syracuse defender. The official deemed the hit late and threw a flag, giving Pitt the ball down at the Orange 13-yard line. Three plays later, Peterman ran it in himself to give Pitt a 35-21 lead. Syracuse never got closer than that margin. They reached to within 15 in the second half, but never got closer. They played catch up the rest of the game and as bad as Pitt’s defense was, Syracuse was playing a game of “anything you can do, I can do worse” with their defensive unit.

I’m not sure who was guilty of the personal foul, because, I believe there was some controversy on the play. One thing that tells me this is that Heinz Field did not show a replay at all and Syracuse head coach, Dino Babers, called a timeout after the play. Why did he do this? So he could spend an extra 30 seconds giving the ACC officiating crew a stern talking to about the call. Controversial or not, the Orange never really got back into the game, despite all the wildness and that’s why it’s our Turning Point of the Game.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Pitt cracks the AP Top 25

Pitt is ranked for the first time this season

The Associated Press released their updated top 25 for the week earlier today, and the Pitt Panthers have cracked the poll for the first time this season, coming in tied at #24 alongside South Floirda. You can see the entire poll here. Earlier in the afternoon, the Coaches released their top 25 and the Panthers narrowly missed the top 25, and finished third among teams in votes received.

Pitt is now ranked for the second consecutive year in a row, after appearing in the rankings last season following a 6-1 start. Since the AP Poll began, Pitt has been ranked in 26.3% of the time, which ranks 27th all-time.

Pitt enters the rankings following a wild 76-61 win over Syracuse. They have won three in a row, including a win over then #2 Clemson. In total Pitt is 2-2 against top 25 teams, including 2-0 versus the AP Top 8.

In Pat Narduzzi’s second year, he has Pitt ranked both seasons. His predecessors Paul Chryst and Todd Graham never had the Panthers ranked in their four joint seasons running the program, and each time Pitt finished 6-6 in the regular season.

Pitt is 8-4 for the second year in a row, and they await their bowl destination. The regular season concludes next weekend, and Pitt should soon find their bowl fate sometime soon thereafter. The Panthers went to the Military Bowl last season, and lost to Navy.

Pitt has been to 32 bowl games in program history, with their first appearance coming in the 1927 Rose Bowl. Despite recent coaching turmoil, Pitt has been to a bowl in each of the past eight seasons, compiling a 3-5 postseason record in that stretch. The eight year (now nine) bowl streak is good for the 14th best active streak in that span.

Panthers of the Game: Offensive Line

The Pitt Panther offensive line has been amazing all year and they continued that trend yesterday against Syracuse.

Pitt had more than a couple of players that were deserving of Panther of the Game in yesterday’s shootout victory over Syracuse. James Conner hit for over 100 yards rushing and did damage in the receiving game too. Quadree Henderson also rushed for over 100 yards and had several great kick returns on special teams. The offense was clicking and of all their damage done yesterday, many were through quick strike drives. I think for the Panther of the Game though, we have to put a plural on it and call it the Panthers of the Game. That’s because the Pitt offensive line put on a clinic in their 76-61 win.

We’ll name them right now starting left to right with Adam Bisnowaty, Dorian Johnson, Alex Officer, Alex Bookser, and Brian O’Neill. That group paved the way for Pitt to rush for a grand total of 393 yards rushing, where backs found holes all over the place. The rushing game provided the Panthers with 9.8 yards per rush...THAT’S ALMOST A FIRST DOWN ON EVERY RUSH! They also continued to keep quarterback Nate Peterman clean throughout games, as Syracuse failed to record a sack.

There was also two interesting plays that illustrate just how much this line can do. We’ve seen O’Neill catch a pass for a touchdown, rush for a touchdown, and yesterday, they tried to let him throw for a play. The play did not work as no one was open downfield, so O’Neill pretty much just threw it away.

The other play was freshman Maurice Ffrench’s 77 yard jet sweep touchdown. Ffrench may or may not have been touched, most of the way, and leading the way...IN FRONT OF THE WIDE RECEIVERS BLOCKING....was Brian O’Neill. After the game, he refused to tell the Pitt radio team his 40-yard dash time, but when he goes to the combine, I believe we’ll all be looking to see just how fast the big man is for an offensive tackle.

We all knew one of Pitt’s strengths this year was the offensive line and they have lived up to the expectations and are a big reason the Panthers finished 8-4 with a pretty brutal schedule. It’s been fun to see them play, as a unit, all year.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Michigan’s Harbaugh, Peppers go viral after loss to Ohio State – for the wrong reasons

Fresh off losing a possible shot at the National Championship and a Big Ten title, University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh expressed rage over the officiating during his team's 30-27 2 OT loss to Ohio State University Saturday.

>> Read more trending stories

Harbaugh repeatedly said he was "bitter" over the officiating in the game.

He pointed to a personal foul penalty that was assessed against him, a pass interference call and the spot on Ohio State's final drive on a fourth-down play that set up the Buckeye's game-winning touchdown.

Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, considered by many to be the best defensive player in the country, shoved a fan after he backed into Peppers as the stands emptied onto the field. 

Pitt outlasts Syracuse, 76-61. In football.

If you had told Pitt fans before the Syracuse finale that the Orange would score 61 points in today's game, after the shock wore off, the question would likely be how badly the team was beat. But while the Cuse did in fact score that many, the Panthers' 76 points were enough to win today's game.

And, no, that's not an early ACC basketball score.

Today, we saw what happens when two teams play virtually no defense. Okay, so no defense may be a little harsh. The Panthers did, after all, score a touchdown off of a Dane Jackson pick six. But that, friends, was mostly it. The two teams combined for over 1,300 yards of offense, so let that sink in.

Seeing Pitt do what they wanted offensively wasn't a huge surprise. The Panthers have scored on everybody this year and have really picked things up lately, scoring 56 against Duke last weekend. Nathan Peterman had five total touchdowns (and nearly a sixth, where he was ruled out of bounds just before the goal line on a long run. James Conner had 160 total yards and three touchdowns. Jester Weah had four catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Quadree Henderson had over 100 yards rushing and a score. You can take your pick in terms of offensive hero today.

None of that was particularly surprising. What was surprising was the ease with which Syracuse scored. The Orange didn't have starting quarterback Eric Dungey but it hardly mattered. His replacement Zack Mahoney had 440 yards and five touchdowns on the day, completing over 70% of his passes. Aside from the pick six to Jackson, he had a pretty perfect day. The impact of not having Dungey simply wasn't felt. Sure, maybe you look at the Mahoney interception and quibble there. But Dungey had thrown a pick in his last four games before going down with an injury and expecting him to do much more than Mahoney isn't all that realistic.

Receiver Amba Etta Tawo, who is one of the top wideouts in the nation was purely unstoppable with 13 catches for 178 yards and five touchdowns. But the Orange offense didn't stop with he and Mahoney. Receiver Ervin Philips had over 100 yards receiving. Four other guys combined for more than 150 yards. Freshman running back Moe Neal had just under 100 yards on the day and he had about 1/3 of his season total coming into today's game. Pitt's vaunted run defense, in fact, gave up 228 yards to Mahoney, Neal, and Dontae Strickland.

I'd like to think that the defense was a product of lackadaisical playing just because the team was ahead nearly the entire game. But I also have to think that once Syracuse topped 30 points or so that head coach Pat Narduzzi was getting pretty upset. The fact is that Syracuse's passing game, as others have been for the Pitt secondary, was just too difficult to stop. Frankly, it's a good thing that Pitt could score at will because Syracuse did that, too. To see the Orange score time and again was frustrating to some degree - even as the Panthers led by two to three touchdowns.

I'll have more in terms of a season recap later. But despite the shootout today against Syracuse, I think Pitt has had a great season. When you factor in the number of key injuries they've had the difficult schedule, and the big wins over Penn State and Clemson, it's hard to ask for much more. Seeing them so close to the Division title was tough and it's also annoying to consider that they could have easily won another couple of games (maybe even three). But if you're a Pitt fan, you have to be happy with how the team played this year. Now, it's a matter of building on this and getting to the next level.

Oh yeah, and win that bowl game, too, boys.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt-Syracuse Game Day Information (How to Watch, Schedule, TV)

Today, Pitt takes on Syracuse as they close the regular season. The Orange have lost three straight games (falling to Clemson, North Carolina State, and Florida State) and the Panthers will be looking to win their third consecutive matchup. Pitt comes into this one heavily favored and both teams are moving in opposite directions right now.

Even Syracuse's four wins haven't been real impressive for the most part. The Orange did pull off a nice upset, beating a ranked Virginia Tech team that defeated Pitt. But with the other victories coming against Colgate, UConn, and Boston College, there just hasn't been much to celebrate as an Orange fan this season.

Here's a look at the game day information for today's contest.

Date: November 26, 2016

Records: Pitt (7-4) vs. Syracuse (4-7)

Time: 12:30 p.m. (EST)

Location: Heinz Field (Pittsburgh, PA)

TV: WTAE-TV

Radio: 93.7 FM The Fan

Last Game: Pitt beat Syracuse in 2015, 23-20

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt defeats Morehead State, 76-63

As expected, Pitt had little trouble with Morehead State on Friday. The Panthers didn't blow them out of the water, but had a comfortable 76-63 win.

Pitt was up by as many as 18 in the first half and seemed to take the foot off the pedal a little in the second half. Even though Morehead State managed to keep the score somewhat close, you just never really got the sense in this game that they could legitimately challenge Pitt.

They key for Pitt was how they shot the ball. The team made nearly 50% of their shots and that included making 11 of 19 three-pointers. Cameron Johnson turned in his second strong game with 16 points and he and guard Jonathan Milligan did the most damage from beyond the arc, hitting seven of their 11 attempts.

Those guys, along with Jamel Artis and his 17 points, had great games. But as usual, it was Michael Young leading the way. Young had 20 points, six rebounds, and four assists. He, too, got in on the three-point act, making his only attempt from that range.

We used to talk a lot about Lamar Patterson filling up the box score for Pitt when he was still around, but Young does that as well. In addition to averaging nearly 25 points per game this year, he's pulling in almost nine rebounds, dishing about almost three assists, and averaging over 1.5 blocks. He's really doing it all for Pitt and is clearly the MVP of the team right now despite some really good games by Artis and, lately, Johnson.

The encouraging thing for me was seeing Milligan come off the bench and make some three-pointers. Pitt will undoubtedly be able to use that going forward and with the team so thin, it would be nice to get another regular contributor off the bench. Right now, it's hard to rely on anyone beyond Luther there.

I thought Pitt's defensive intensity could have been a little better. A 20-point win would have looked a lot more impressive but it's just hard to get up for some of these games. Sure, it's their job. But it's the day after Thanksgiving and the team has a big matchup coming up against Maryland. It's hard to play cutthroat 100% of the time when the opposition isn't the best and the crowds are light.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

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