PITTSBURGH (AP) — Only Clemson has won more Atlantic Coast Conference games than Pittsburgh since Pat Narduzzi took over nearly a decade ago.
Not Florida State. Not North Carolina. Not Miami or Virginia Tech or anyone else.
And yet seemingly every fall, it’s as if the Panthers have made little headway. At this point, Narduzzi has learned — through gritted teeth perhaps — to tune it out. Pitt is picked to finish sixth in the new-look ACC after it moved from a multiple-division format that featured the Clemson-heavy Atlantic and the perpetually chaotic Coastal.
Same as it ever was for the only program not named Clemson to win the ACC title in a season not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve never been picked to be first,” said Narduzzi, who is 62-41 overall and 41-25 in ACC play. “It’s the same thing as last year, same thing as the year before … so I guess we’re just right where they always put us.”
It’s a position Narduzzi is fine being in. Maybe because he’s so used to it. Other teams around them rise, fall and rise again. Not the Panthers.
“There’s some other really good programs out there,” Narduzzi said. Whether you beat them or not, (they say) ‘We’re going to be better this year. We were bad last year, but we’re going to be better this year.’ They all have excuses of why they didn’t win. We just keep plugging away.”
Don’t get Narduzzi wrong. He’s not saying there isn’t room for growth. Still, the floor has been raised considerably since he replaced Paul Chryst — now long gone at Wisconsin. Narduzzi is now the second-winningest coach in the history of a program that dates to 1889.
Not that Narduzzi wants to look back at what he’s done. He’d much rather look forward. While the Panthers lost a handful of impact players to the NFL — defensive lineman Calijah Kancey, linebacker SirVocea Dennis and running back Israel Abanikanda chief among them — the cupboard isn’t bare.
Quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s nomadic career has brought him back home after stops at Notre Dame and Boston College. Running back Rodney Hammond is eager to make up for lost time after missing most of last season with a leg injury. The defense — which has finished in the top five in the nation in sacks each of the last four years — is intent on being its usual disruptive self.
“I mean, just the leadership that we have every year and the culture that we bring in with our players, it’s outstanding,” said senior offensive tackle Matt Gonclaves. “It all starts with Coach Narduzzi and the standard that we set.”
HOMECOMING, PART 1
Jurkovec starred at Pine Richland High School in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs before spurning an offer by the Panthers to head to Notre Dame.
He returns five years later hoping to deliver on the promise he flirty with occasionally during his time at Boston College. Jurkovec’s decision to end his college career at Pitt wasn’t just based on nostalgia. It also reunited him with offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who was in the same role at Boston College in 2020 when Jurkovec had the best season of his career, throwing for 17 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
“Being able to come home is huge,” Jurkovec said. “But Coach Cignetti was probably the key to it all. But having played in his offense and the level of trust I have with him.”
HOMECOMING, PART 2
Jurkovec isn’t the only former local blue-chip recruit to get back to where he once belonged. Derrick Davis opted for LSU over Pitt after graduating from Gateway High in the city’s eastern suburbs. The Tigers tried to make him a safety. It didn’t take. Now Davis finds himself back at running back.
Davis joins a crowded room that includes Hammond, Daniel Carter and C’Bo Flemister. While much will be made of Jurkovec and the passing game, Pitt figures to lean heavily on the run as it did last year when Abanikanda ran for over 1,400 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Pitt may have one of the most difficult nonconference schedules in the nation. The Panthers welcome AAC power Cincinnati on Sept. 9, head to rival West Virginia the following week and visit Notre Dame on Oct. 28.
“I’ll play anybody they want to play,” Narduzzi said. “It doesn’t really matter. Our kids get fired up to play big games … You want to put exciting teams in this stadium, in this city to show off what we got and how we match up with all those teams.”