PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi understands the renewal of Pitt’s rivalry with Penn State after a 15-year hiatus is sure to generate plenty of chatter.
All things being equal, Narduzzi would rather keep the Panthers out of it.
Narduzzi is putting his team on lockdown ahead of Saturday’s long-awaited visit from the Nittany Lions for reasons he described as more practical than personal. The second-year coach isn’t worried about his players littering the walls in Happy Valley with bulletin board material. He’d just rather have them focused on the task at hand rather than spend time talking about it.
“We don’t want any distractions,” Narduzzi said. “I’d rather them go right in the film room. If it’s three minutes (with the media), it might be the three minutes we’ll miss (in film).”
Narduzzi stressed he wants to be the “only voice” for the program, and he is fine with treating Pitt’s first meeting with Penn State since 2000 as more than just another game. In many ways it is, not just for in-state bragging rights for the next year but also for whatever edge it may gain in the living room of recruits that have both schools on their radar.
“It plays a major factor I think in the end,” Narduzzi said. “I think kids look up and they want to play for a winner and they want to know which ship is floating and strong.”
The Panthers put together a solid but hardly overwhelming 28-7 win over Villanova last weekend. While the outcome was never really in doubt once running back James Conner scored twice in the second quarter in his stirring return from a bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, there is plenty to work on as Pitt takes on an opponent that will be a significant step up in class.
The offense managed just 261 yards and Conner averaged a modest 3.1 yards per carry, the lowest in his career in any game in which he’s carried it at least 10 times. Narduzzi chalked it up to a bit of rust and Conner’s propensity to look for a big play every time instead of settling for what’s there.
“When he hit it, he did pretty good,” Narduzzi said. “When he started to look for that touchdown (he started to dance). He’s a big, powerful downhill runner. That’s why we’re not a spread offense.”
Conner was in kindergarten the last time Pitt and Penn State shared the same field, a 12-0 victory by the Panthers on Sept. 16, 2000, and Conner is one of the oldest players on the Panthers. Narduzzi understands it may be a bit of a challenge for a group with no personal history against the Nittany Lions to suddenly develop strong emotions one way or the other.
That’s one of the reasons for the media blackout. Narduzzi spent eight years as part of Michigan State’s contentious annual showdown with Michigan while working as the Spartans’ defensive coordinator. Getting used to the white-hot flame – and the unique circumstances surrounding the game – took some time.
“When I first got into a major rivalry, I didn’t get it,” he said. “I didn’t get it until the second year. I want to make sure they get it the first year.”