Football season is finally arriving, and the Villanova Wildcats are set to open with another big time trip to face an FBS opponent. This time it will be the Pitt Panthers who host the 'Cats opener, after rescheduling the game from a few years ago. The Panthers are looking forward to a season where they feel pretty good about their chances to win in the ACC, while the Wildcats are hoping to give Andy Talley another big season before he retires.
Villanova hasn't faced Pittsburgh on the gridiron since Brian Westbrook was wearing a "V" on his helmet, so to help catch us up on the Panthers' we spoke with Anson Whaley of fellow SB Nation site, Cardiac Hill. Be sure to check out their site for more coverage of the game and for our answers to their questions.
1. Pat Narduzzi has a season under his belt now, what have you seen from his coaching style that you like so far? What about him is going to drive fans crazy?
Off the field, the big thing is his recruiting style. Paul Chryst was a solid head coach but he didn't have nearly the recruiting presence that Narduzzi brings to the table. Chryst didn't seem to care much for it while Narduzzi has said it's one of the things he genuinely enjoys. He's enthusiastic, upbeat, all over Twitter, and just much more engaged. Even beyond recruiting, he's very affable. I've seen him at university events and he's very enthusiastic - a sentiment echoed by numerous people that have met him at events. That all seems sort of fluffy, but is all very important.
His game day approach is intriguing as well. Last year, for example, in a tough road game against Georgia Tech, the score was tied with about a minute left. Instead of punting the ball away to play it safe, he opted to go for a 56-yard field goal instead. Miss, and you set Georgia Tech up with a short field. The kick was made and Pitt won the game. Just a really gutsy call on his part. I think folks appreciate that and it won him a lot of fans. But it's also one thing that will drive people nuts when those things go the other way. His ability to take risks won't always pay off and that will leave some people scratching their heads at times.
One thing his staff has done markedly better than past coaches is make excellent halftime adjustments. The team almost always came ready to play out of the break last year. The slow starts were a big point of frustration but I give a lot of credit to his coaches for making changes at halftime. Whatever they said or did was noticeable from the stands. I don't have the first-half/second-half scoring splits in front of me, but the team almost always played much better in the second half.
2. From the outside, Villanova fans seem to look at Pittsburgh and see nothing but growing pains since they left the Big East. How has life been in the ACC post-realignment?
That's an interesting thought. I think most Pitt fans would feel the opposite, to be honest. Now, basketball has no doubt been down despite still making the NCAAs in three of the past four years. But the program had been regressing for some time even before joining the ACC. Their last two seasons in the Big East included a first-round NCAA Tournament exit losing to Wichita State and missing both the NCAAs and NIT, winning the CBI. The program hasn't been helped by playing in the ACC but in reality, the regression for them actually began in the Big East.
The same goes for football, too. Pitt was supposed to contend for the Big East title every year but after Dave Wannstedt left after the 2010 season, that never happened. The team was 6-7 in their final two years in the Big East before slightly upgrading in their first ACC year to 7-6. Last season, the Panthers went 8-5 and there's real hope that things are turning around again to get to those nine- and ten-win seasons they had under Wannstedt. Again, problems with the program existed in the Big East.
And while the Olympic sports are farther off the radar, Pitt appears to be making strides there, too. This offseason they just hired Jay Vidovich, a former coach that led Wake Forest to a national championship. They brought in John Hargis, a highly-regarded coach who was a part of staffs on highly-ranked teams and was a gold medalist. The volleyball, women's soccer, and softball teams are all programs that have struggled badly but have had recent success. The football facilities have had significant upgrades. Pitt also just announced plans for a new domed lacrosse and soccer facility and coaches have had bigger budgets to find quality assistants. A lot of this simply doesn't happen without the ACC revenue the athletics department is generating.
Things haven't been perfect and competing in some of these sports will be a problem. But as a whole, the athletics department is leaps and bounds from where it's been and better positioned for success through additional revenue to recruit, for facility upgrades, etc.
3. Everyone at VU Hoops has heard about James Connor's return from Hodgkins Lymphoma this season. How big is his comeback for Pitt, both on the field and emotionally?
It can't really be understated. On the field, Pitt probably would be fine at running back. They have the reigning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year in Qadree Ollison as well as two other highly-regarded backs. But his big-play ability and his bruising style of running, which can wear down opposing defenses, is a big plus. Pitt's backfield was decent without him but it looks like it will be outstanding with him there.
Emotionally, I can't speak for how the players feel. But through all of the quotes, interviews, etc., they all say it's big to get him back. He also really earned a lot of points with them by going through workouts in the spring while still receiving treatments - just really inspiring stuff. I think that's one of the things that will make it harder for the team to suffer a letdown in the opener against Villanova. The reception he'll get at the stadium will be unreal and while I'm not a big believer in things like this leading to wins, I do think it gives the team an extra lift.
4. Who are the Panther's stars on defense? Are they going to be stronger against the run or pass?
If I had to guess, I'd say they will be a little better against the run. They have three seniors on the defensive line that have all started in some capacity and the fourth is a transfer they snagged from Tennessee, Dewayne Hendrix, who was a very sought after recruit that sat out last year. The linebackers always seem to me to play better against the run, too.
The passing defense had some breakdowns last year, but they shouldn't be terrible, either. They return three starters, including safety Jordan Whitehead, who was a top recruit and was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year as a true freshman in 2015. The lone non-returning starter is Ryan Lewis, who is a senior with plenty of game experience as a backup and on special teams. Those guys aren't lights out, but they should be good enough collectively. As with any team, they're only as good as the pass rush is and I expect that defensive line to be solid.
5. What are Pitt fans reasonable expectations for the 2016 season? Is this a team thats expected to go to a decent bowl game? Challenge for an ACC title? National aspirations?
They can challenge for an ACC title only in the sense that they have a reasonable path the conference championship game. They're not in the same Division as Clemson and Florida State, so they're main competition is really North Carolina and Miami. I'd rank both of those teams ahead of Pitt right now, but the chance to win the Division is at least there.
Nationally, they received some preseason Top 25 votes and they were ranked briefly last season. The schedule starts off very difficult. After Villanova, they play a rivalry game with Penn State, travel to Oklahoma State, then travel to North Carolina. A slow start is not only reasonable, but possibly expected to some degree. Things ease up a little at various points, but they also have games against Clemson, Miami, and Virginia Tech, among others. Seven or eight regular season wins seems to be the general consensus. What I think they really need to avoid is a 6-6 year, which is still possible as well with that schedule.
6. What do you miss the most (and you have to miss something) from the old Big East?
I'm actually going to give you two things. First, the basketball games against UConn. Those were just a lot of fun and even though the Huskies might disagree a little, it seemed like a budding rivalry when Pitt had those great seasons. Beating Jim Calhoun was about as good as it gets.
The other thing is that I miss the hope of having a better chance at winning a conference and making noise on a national level. The ACC Coastal gives Pitt a chance to reach a conference title game but they are still very far from actually threatening the likes of Clemson and Florida State. In the Big East, there was always hope that Pitt could put together a year like West Virginia did in 2007 and sneak their way into national title contention. They will have a much more difficult path to make national championship noise in the ACC and have a long way to go in that regard.