PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 08: Brad Stewart #83 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets pulls in the pass against Dane Jackson #11 and Jordan Whitehead #9 of the Pittsburgh Panthers in the second half on October 8, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

5 questions for a Pitt beat writer

To get further acquainted with Georgia Tech’s opponent for Saturday, we’ve asked Pittsburgh beat writer Jerry DiPaola of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to answer a few questions about the Panthers. You can read his coverage of Pitt here and follow him on Twitter here.

Q: With Pat Narduzzi not naming a starting quarterback for Saturday, how do you evaluate the pros/cons of Max Browne and Ben DiNucci?

A: Max Browne has been a major disappointment, even when you consider Pitt is one of only two schools in the nation to have played two Top 10 teams. He is a sitting duck in the pocket, and hasn't developed a connection with his pass catchers. Part of it may be his unfamiliarity with the offense after four years at USC. Part of it is his receivers are mediocre; Jester Weah's yards-per-catch average has fallen from 24.2 last year to 10.9. Part of it is a mediocre offensive line.

Ben DiNucci, who was headed to Penn before Alex Hornibrook followed Paul Chryst to Wisconsin, is more mobile than Browne and appears to be a better natural leader. He even said after the Oklahoma State game, "In terms of a leader, guys will just naturally follow me."

I would have guessed DiNucci would be Narduzzi's choice for the Georgia Tech game, if he hadn't thrown two damaging interceptions against Oklahoma State.

DiNucci's arm is inferior to Browne's, but maybe not enough for Browne to start Saturday.

On the other hand, Browne was Narduzzi's choice at the end of the training camp competition. Has DiNucci done enough to change his coach's mind?

Q: Statistically speaking, it looks like Pitt defended the run pretty well against Oklahoma State but not the pass and vice versa against Penn State. What do you make of the unit, and how much do you think the return of safety Jordan Whitehead (whom Paul Johnson called the best player on that side of the ball) will help?

A: The defense is young. The starting lineup consists of only two seniors -- defensive end Allen Edwards, who hadn't played much before this year, and cornerback Avonte Maddox. Johnson is only half right; Whitehead is Pitt's best player on either side of the ball. His experience, athleticism and ability to make splash plays have been missed; Narduzzi said as much after the Oklahoma State game.

But Whitehead is one of four defensive players suspended or kicked off the team prior to training camp. All four might have been starters.

Pitt also gets no pass rush, which puts a lot of pressure on the young secondary.

Q: At this point, what can you say Pitt does well?

A: If Pitt didn't lose a 21-0 lead to Youngstown State, I would have said the team has a strong overall mental makeup that it gets from its coach. But it needed overtime to beat an admittedly solid FCS team. It was competitive against Penn State for part of the game and even showed a decent running game.

Pitt usually defends the run well, and Penn State's Saquon Barkley was held to 88 yards, Oklahoma State's Justice Hill to 91. OK, but not good enough. Narduzzi built his reputation on run defense and it has let him down in recent games, dating to 2016.

Q: Pitt gave up 376 rushing yards on 40 carries to Tech in 2015 (one of the Jackets’ most efficient rushing days in Paul Johnson’s tenure) but then cut it back to 241 yards on 45 carries last year. Do you get the sense that Narduzzi feels at least somewhat confident about his scheme for Tech?

A: I think he's worried about his young linebackers and defensive tackles, but he's confident in his scheme. I bet he stacks the box like Jacksonville State did (Whitehead is very good against the run) and hopes Maddox can keep the secondary on point. Narduzzi has more athleticism on defense -- if less experience -- than he had in '15 and '16. He just has to get it pointed in the right direction.

Q: I may have asked this before, but it feels to me that Pitt and Tech have at least a couple similarities as far as being the second team in the state (behind Penn State and Georgia), being in a major city dominated by pro sports and having considerable football tradition. Like Tech, I’m guessing Pitt isn’t rolling in the cash. That said, Narduzzi winning eight games in both of his first two seasons seems like a success to me. Where is Pitt trying to get to, and what’s it going to take?

A: A total of 16 victories is good, but Dave Wannstedt won 19 in two seasons and was fired a year later.

Pitt's administration is spending more money on the program than it had done in the recent past. Salaries for assistants are on the rise and boosters are pitching in with perks like a private plane for coaches on recruiting trips and cosmetic improvements to the practice facility.

Pitt's new athletic director Heather Lyke is preaching excellence and championships in all sports, so we're to assume that includes football. The goal every year is to win the ACC, but I'm sure they'd temporarily settle for the Coastal and the recruiting lift it might bring.

Recommend reading on the topic: A Tribune-Review story comparing Pitt with the ACC and the elite of FBS.

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