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Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi talks Tennessee matchup

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NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Now the rest tests begin.

Tennessee didn’t play particularly well in the opener, but still managed to come away with a 38-6 win over a struggling Bowling Green team. Now it’s time for the toughest non-conference matchup on Tennessee’s schedule — a date with Pittsburgh.

The Panthers have found stability under Pat Narduzzi, consistently producing winning seasons since his arrival in 2015. They’ve yet to take that next big step, but Pitt has been good enough for 7-8 wins over the last several seasons.

Josh Heupel knows all about them. He faced Narduzzi’s teams back in 2018 and 2019, splitting the two-game set while at UCF. Now the two coaches are set for round three, although Heupel’s program and personnel are much different.

“We got a Tennessee team that we haven’t played the personnel there, but Josh Heupel coming from UCF, having two games with them, gives us a little bit of an advantage, gives them an advantage as well because they know who we are both sides of the ball,” Narduzzi told the media on Monday. “We’ll be ready for the tempo. I think it’s going to be a heck of a game.”

Heupel’s UCF squad dismantled Pitt back in 2018, winning 45-14. Narduzzi got revenge a year later, winning a thriller 35-34. The Panthers are now 1.5 point road favorites heading into this game.

“I’m sure they’ll have some tweaks for us maybe that they didn’t show in the first game,” Narduzzi continued. “But very similar. I think they’re snapping the ball faster. Probably an average of 11 seconds they’re snapping the ball on offense. Defensively they’re a little bit different than they were in the past. Tim Banks came from Penn State, their defensive coordinator. A lot of look like them as far as playing a lot of man free, a lot of four down. A lot of different variations in coverage which I’m sure we’ll see a few just to confuse Kenny a little bit.”

Pittsburgh returns senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who enters his fourth year as the starter. That continuity on offense is no doubt an advantage, but Narduzzi is facing a bit of a rebuild defensively. He sent five defensive draft picks to the league after last season, including three defensive lineman and two starters in the secondary.

His defensive unit didn’t get much of a test in week one, as Pitt blew by UMass 51-7. Narduzzi expects a much tougher challenge this week.

“Their offensive line is big and physical,” Narduzzi said. “Look like an SEC offensive line. Those top five guys played a bunch, they’re big, strong, know what they’re doing. It will be a bigger challenge than Josh Heupel’s team at UCF as far as the O-line goes. Their backs are good. We’ve got enough tape on them to know who they are right now. I don’t think they held anybody out in that game so we’ll know where their speed is, where the concerns are, where they like to throw the ball, what they want to do in the run game.”

Narduzzi saw what we saw — a Tennessee offense that flashed and fizzled, at least in the passing game. The Volunteers scored twice quickly to open, but the chemistry in the passing attack fell apart. Drops and misreads plagued the offense, which was forced to lean on the run game for the rest of the day. It’s no secret that the passing attack must be more efficient with a stronger opponent on deck.

Another factor for Pitt? How about the crowd at Neyland Stadium? Tennessee had 84,000+ on hand for the opener, and that number should increase this week. But Narduzzi is downplaying what should be a hostile environment, likely due to his veteran quarterback.

“We’ll be prepared and we’ll be ready to go,” Narduzzi said. “Any time we’ve had noise issues, noisy games for our offense, our guys have stepped up and done a nice job. They’ll be prepared for it. Should not be an issue.”

Sounds like a challenge to me.

Tennessee and Pittsburgh are set for a noon ET kickoff on Saturday, with ESPN carrying the game.