With consecutive eight-win seasons, including triumphs over Big Ten champion Penn State and national champion Clemson last season, Pittsburgh third-year coach Pat Narduzzi has returned the school to national relevancy. With significant turnover from last season and a rematch with the Nittany Lions looming on Sept. 9, Narduzzi will get a feel for where his Panthers stand after he faces off against fellow Youngstown native Bo Pelini and his Penguins on Saturday.
Four of Pittsburgh’s five losses in 2016 were by one score, and those defeats could be placed solely on a porous defense that allowed an average of 35.2 points and 452.8 yards during the season. Pitt’s offense was able to pick up the defense on most occasions, averaging 40.9 points - 10th in FBS - and 446.8 yards. Nathan Peterman passed for 2,855 yards and 27 touchdowns and averaged 15.4 yards per completion, James Conner rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 scores and All-American Quadree Henderson accounted for 2,083 all-purpose yards - the first Panther to surpass 2,000 since Heisman winner Tony Dorsett in 1976. In Pelini’s second year after getting fired at Nebraska, Youngstown State won six straight games during its run for a fifth national championship, but the Penguins fell short in the title game - a 28-14 setback to James Madison.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, ACC Network. LINE: NL.
ABOUT YOUNGSTOWN STATE (2016: 12-4): The Penguins, ranked in the top-10 in FCS again this season, lost a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz, but return senior quarterback Hunter Wells, who completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 1,714 yards and 11 touchdowns. His top targets figure to include Alvin Bailey, who caught a team-high 47 passes in 2016, and Damoun Patterson, who averaged 24.2 yards on his 20 receptions. Junior linebacker Armand Dellovade led the team with 105 tackles, but the line will need to replace ends and Avery Moss and Derek Rivers, who combined for 117 tackles and 26 sacks a season ago before becoming NFL Draft picks.
ABOUT PITTSBURGH (2016: 8-5): With Peterman and Conner off to the NFL and offensive coordinator Matt Canada off to LSU, new play-caller Shawn Watson - who served under Pelini at Nebraska - arrives after being fired at Texas. USC graduate transfer Max Browne (62.4 completion percentage, 507 yards in 2016), who started the first three games at USC last season, takes over for Peterman, while juniors Qadree Ollison (1,121 yards in 2015; 127 yards last season) and Darrin Hall (160 yards in 2016) battle sophomore Chawntez Moss (227 yards) to replace Conner. With all the problems defensive-minded Narduzzi had on that side of the ball last season, it might not be such a bad thing that four of five defensive lineman, three linebackers and three defensive backs need to be replaced.
1. Prior to 2015, the last time Pitt won eight games in a season was 2010 (8-5).
2. The 5-8 Henderson (10.5 yards per carry on 60 rushes, 26 receptions) will play even a bigger role in both rushing and receiving, and the Panthers have a budding star in senior WR Jester Weah, who averaged 24.2 yards per reception and scored on 10 of his 36 catches.
3. The Panthers beat the Penguins 45-37 in the 2015 opener behind 207 yards rushing from Ollison.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 27, Youngstown State 20