PITTSBURGH (AP) — A week ago, Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi lamented the lack of attention being paid to the Panthers.
“I still don’t see much respect for a 4-1 football team, which is fine,” Narduzzi said before a visit to Virginia Tech. “It’s something I’ll use.”
Fast forward seven days. Now Narduzzi finds himself having to search for a different kind of motivation after the Panthers (5-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) moved into the polls for the first time this season following a 28-7 blowout win over the Hokies. Perhaps just as surprising, 23rd-ranked Pitt finds itself the early favorite for next weekend’s visit by longtime ACC power Clemson (4-2, 3-1).
Now the coach who fought for his team to get some level of recognition wants his players to ignore it now that it’s finally arrived.
“I told them (Sunday) night I don’t care about stats, stats are for losers,” Narduzzi said Monday. “I don’t care about the polls. I don’t care about anything. I care about this week.”
A week in which the Panthers could further establish themselves as the clear-cut favorites in the ACC’s typically wide-open Coastal Division, if not the entire league. Therein lies the challenge for Narduzzi.
Pitt has flirted regularly with a breakthrough season since he took the job the day after Christmas in 2014. The Panthers upset Clemson and Penn State in 2016. They reached the ACC title game in 2018. They’ve made their way into the AP Top 25 at least once in five of his seven seasons.
The goal now? Staying there. Pitt is just 3-4 as a ranked team under Narduzzi and has never climbed higher than 21st. Beating the Tigers again would go a long way toward changing the perception of the program, though Narduzzi wants no part of the conversation. At least not yet.
Asked if he thinks his veteran-laden group led by dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Kenny Pickett is better equipped to handle the trappings of success than previous teams, Narduzzi shrugged.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Maybe, but Pitt looks like it has figured things out since a stunning 44-41 home loss to Western Michigan last month. The Panthers have won three straight and bullied Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech on the road to give them some early wiggle room in the race for the Coastal Division title.
They may have even found a running game to provide some balance to an offense that’s been almost too reliant on Pickett. Israel Abanikanda rushed for a career-high 140 yards against the Hokies on a day Pickett was kept somewhat in check by the swirling winds at Lane Stadium. It was just the third 100-yard performance by a Pitt running back against an FBS program since 2018.
Abanikanda was so solid that Narduzzi hinted the sophomore may finally have created some separation between himself and junior Vincent Davis on the depth chart. The two have had an “or” in bold type and all capital letters between their names most of the last two years.
“I mean, the way he ran the ball last week, yeah, I’m ready to get rid of that ‘or’,” Narduzzi said.
The Panthers are perhaps in the same boat. They’ve been largely competent and competitive since Narduzzi’s arrival but haven’t won 10 games in a season since 2009. The next four weeks — which includes meetings with Clemson, Miami and North Carolina — offer the program a chance to do more than make a cameo appearance in the polls.
The offense is dynamic and dangerous. The defense has found a way to slow to a trickle the flood of big plays it allowed earlier in the year. A chance to make a true statement awaits against a program that remains a measuring stick not just within the league but within the country.
“They are still the gauge in the ACC, period,” Narduzzi said. “They are the best.”
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