PITTSBURGH — Bo Pelini popped in the tape of Youngstown State’s visit to Pittsburgh two years ago in preparation for the 2017 season opener against the Panthers on Saturday and immediately regretted it.
“I want to burn it,” Pelini said.
Might as well. The Pittsburgh team that will run out of the Heinz Field tunnel to face Pelini and the Penguins hardly resembles the group that held off Youngstown State 45-37 in coach Pat Narduzzi’s first game. Narduzzi believes this group is better and deeper than the one that allowed the Penguins to hang around for far too long.
“There’s some players on that field I’d still take … and there’s some other players that you’re going, ‘Wow, we don’t have a guy playing for us right now that’s like that guy, either,’ which is a good thing, too,” Narduzzi said.
Still, there is much work to be done. Pitt has finished runner-up in the ACC Coastal Division each of his first two seasons. That’s not going to be good enough this time around. It’s why Narduzzi coined the phrase “Take It” for 2017, a direct challenge to his team that it’s time to stop working around the fringe of the ACC elite and join it.
That won’t happen on Saturday. With a new quarterback in USC transfer Max Browne, a new offensive coordinator in Sean Watson and plenty of questions in the secondary, the Panthers are simply looking to get their feet set and avoid disaster. A trip to No. 6 Penn State and a visit by No. 10 Oklahoma loom later this month. Getting caught looking ahead would be ill-advised against a team that reached the FCS title game last season before falling to James Madison.
Senior quarterback Hunter Wells’ efficiency helped the Penguins within a victory of a national title. Youngstown State’s defense allowed just 19.9 points per game, a stat that looks like a typo these days. Sure, Pelini would like a low-scoring game. Given the unpredictable nature of openers, he and Narduzzi are both parking any preconceived notions at the door.
“They have some new faces, we have some new faces, I don’t know. You think a game is going to go a certain way going in. Rarely does it go the way you think it’s going to go,” Pelini said. “We have to be able to adapt and do what’s necessary to win.”
A quick look at what to look for as the Panthers look for a 2015 repeat while the Penguins hope to do what they did in 2012: come into Heinz Field and leave with a victory.
OLLI OLLI OXENFREE: There will be at least one familiar face to Pelini in the Pitt backfield in RB Qadree Ollison. Ollison came on when James Conner left with a knee injury and ran for 207 yards and a touchdown in his collegiate debut. Ollison earned ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year for his work that season, but took on a secondary role when Conner returned last fall. Ollison and Darrin Hall have separated themselves from a crowded picture and Ollison is eager to prove he’s more than a one-season wonder.
CONTAINING QUADREE: Pitt wide receiver Quadree Henderson earned All-American honors as a kick returner last season when he returned three kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns. The Panthers are hoping to expand Henderson’s role in the offense, particularly at receiver. Only 26 of Henderson’s 132 touches came on pass receptions. Asked what his plans are to slow Henderson, Pelini joked “hope he pulls his hamstring” before quickly adding “he’s a really good football player. They use him well. He’s a tough guy to tackle in space.”
COVER WHO? The Panthers finished 127th in the country in pass defense last season and will play the first three games without star safety Jordan Whitehead while he serves a suspension for violation of team rules. The Penguins don’t put it up in the air with great frequency but have a solid one-two punch in Alvin Bailey and Damoun Patterson. The two combined for 67 receptions and seven touchdowns last season.
OLD FRIENDS, SORT OF: Pelini and Narduzzi both grew up in Youngstown and played against each other as high schoolers when Narduzzi’s father Bill coached the Penguins. Asked if he ever sacked Pelini, a quarterback back then, Narduzzi, a linebacker, just smiled and said he couldn’t remember.