Neither James Franklin nor Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi gave the media much to work with in their respective press conferences this week. While the coaches remained airtight about elements pertaining to their gameplans, one common theme between the two media sessions, it seems, was an emphasis on defensive line play.
It’s tough to blame either coach for stating the obvious.
Narduzzi’s defense has arguably the toughest test it’ll face all season long in Saquon Barkley — who could have a field day against the Panthers after they allowed 4.1 yards per carry against Youngstown State. Narduzzi understands Barkley isn’t like most opponents he’ll face — he’s a freak.
“He’s stronger, I think. He’s fast. He does it all. I mean, he can do it all,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll have [the wheel route] ironed out in every different possible formation you can see. We didn’t obviously see a lot of him in preseason, did a bad job as coaches, and that starts with me.”
While Pitt managed to hold Barkley to a mere 85 yards — pedestrian for Barkley’s standards — during its 2016 matchup with Penn State, but couldn’t keep him out of the endzone. Penn State’s Mr. Everything managed four scores, and with an injured Pitt defensive unit, there’s a chance fans might see more of the same from last week.
But the onus isn’t on just a handful of players. According to Narduzzi, it’s on everyone.
“You’d better be sound, and you’d better be in the right gaps,” Narduzzi said. “[Barkley] will jump out of a gap. You’ll think he’s going there, and he’ll go there — everybody has got to be gap sound.”
On the flip side, it’s Penn State’s defensive line that needs to make its presence felt the most. While Franklin acknowledged the fact that defensive end was a position with the least returning experience, he understands his unit can’t allow Panthers quarterback Max Browne to have a clean pocket.
Offensive style is an important factor to consider when discussing the defensive line, and in terms of Xs and Os, Akron’s run/pass option won’t reveal much for what fans can expect Saturday.
“When you’re facing RPO or quick gain and the ball is coming out pretty quick,” Franklin said. “The defense has to determine is this a run or a pass on pretty much every single play. I don’t know if Saturday was necessarily that type of game because Akron is a big RPO team.” Franklin added Akron’s more vanilla gameplan as the game grew out of hand didn’t put his defense in high-pressure situations — something that further backed his point about style.
James Conner and Nathan Peterman have moved on to the NFL; the duo leaves behind a great deal of offensive production. However, Pitt has talent, and containing that talent starts with getting to the quarterback.
Franklin believes he has a host of talent along his defensive line ready to answer the call and execute his defensive gameplan all game long.
“I’d say Tyrell Chavis was the guy that really kind of stood out to us,” Franklin said. “We feel like we’ve got five interior defensive tackles right now that are pretty darned good, and when you’re able to have that and those guys are able to rotate and stay fresh and not play a lot of reps, then that’s going to help you in the fourth quarter, that’s going to help you late in the season. We’re in a pretty good position there.”
Emerging star Ryan Buchholz will be another player Franklin counts on this Saturday — and by all accounts, he could be a difference maker based on his Week One performance.
If you’re a fan of old-fashioned trench warfare, Penn State and Pitt should provide the entertainment up front — although it’s the Panthers with the tougher draw.