Q&A with Pittsburgh Panthers beat writer Jerry DiPaola

Jerry DiPaola covers Pittsburgh for the Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh. You can read his coverage of the Panthers here and follow him on Twitter here.

Q: Tech coaches are quick to pay running back James Conner respect for returning to playing after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year, so I’ll do the same. It’s pretty remarkable. But I have to ask how he actually looks on the field. I saw where Pat Narduzzi is trying to limit his snaps. I guess it bears mention that he also tore his MCL last year.

A: James Conner remains Pitt's starter and the best bet to lift the offense (the passing game is hit or miss). But coach Pat Narduzzi has mentioned as recently as two weeks ago that Conner got tired in the middle of the North Carolina game. Freshman Chawntez Moss has replaced him and actually was the better back against Marshall.

Conner doesn’t look as decisive when picking his holes, but he retains the ability to bowl over defenders (and not just little cornerbacks who don’t know any better). He’s a force in the passing game for the first time in his career, which is something previous coaching staffs never emphasized with him. He is Pitt’s third-leading pass catcher (13/169/2), but his per-carry average (4.2) is 1.6 yards off his career mark coming into the season.

Q: Pitt is touting defensive end Ejuan Price as an ACC defensive player of the year candidate. Is he that good? What’s his game?

A: Price is a sixth-year senior, who is almost 24-years-old. Injuries set him back early in his career, but he has become a savvy pass rusher. He has a strong bull rush, especially when he is confronted with a blocking back, and some quickness to him when a tight end or tackle gets in his way. Also impressive is that Price's numbers did not fall off when the other bookend defensive end, Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix, was lost for the season with an injury.

But he doesn’t see as many double teams as you might think, with 335-pound nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett also on the line. I’ve heard several interesting comparisons to NFL elite pass rushers, including Steelers Jason Gildon and James Harrison and the Ravens’ Elvis Dumervil. (He’s built like Harrison and Dumervil.)

Q: What does Pitt do better than anything else?

A: Narduzzi defends the run to a fault, and it shows because Pitt leads the ACC in run defense. He brings his safeties close to the line of scrimmage a good bit of the time, resulting in cornerbacks getting beat one-on-one. The Oklahoma State game is a good example, although Narduzzi blamed the opening play of the game (a 91-yard touchdown pass) on communication problems. Sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead, who didn't play against Marshall for "personal" reasons, set a Pitt freshman record for tackles last season (109). He's a significant force against the run.

Pitt is strong up the middle with Jarrett and converted end Shakir Soto at defensive tackle, and the linebackers are smart, if not especially athletic. But outside linebacker Mike Caprara has been hurt recently, and may not play. Middle linebacker Matt Galambos is a three-year starter, and his backup Quintin Wirginis is also very good.

Q: Last couple minutes of the game: Do you think Narduzzi would rather need to get a score or get a stop?

A: A stop, for sure. His offense isn't set up for comebacks, with Tyler Boyd in the NFL and the second-leading receiver from 2015 Dontez Ford out with a broken collarbone. Narduzzi wears his defensive genius like a badge of honor, and much of it is deserved because Pitt is very good against the run and we can't ignore what he accomplished at Michigan State.

But Navy embarrassed Pitt last year in the Military Bowl, rushing for 417 yards. An instructive stat, considering the triple option comes to town this week. The defense could have won the North Carolina game with a late stop, but failed. And it could have at least sent the Oklahoma State game into overtime, but failed.

Q: Can any other game besides Pitt-Penn State fill Heinz Field (which it did earlier this season)?

A: Yes, but it is limited to Notre Dame and, possibly, West Virginia. But West Virginia hasn't played at Heinz Field since 2010, and the series won't be renewed until a four-game, home-and-home series starting in 2022. Pitt was 6-1 last year for the North Carolina game on a Thursday night, but the game drew only 43,049, about 20,000 under Heinz Field capacity. Pitt fans are passionate, but too many fell off the bandwagon over the past several years of mediocrity.