By Brian Dzenis
Today at Heinz Field, a Youngstown favorite son again goes against the son of another favorite.
Youngstown State’s Bo Pelini is a Cardinal Mooney guy and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi is an Ursuline graduate. Two years ago, they made their respective debuts with their current schools against each other.
“I have a lot of respect for Pat and I think he’s done a great job at Pitt,” Pelini said. “His father [Bill Narduzzi] is an icon in this program.”
Narduzzi’s Panthers took the 2015 matchup, 45-37, but two years can be a lifetime in college football. In the time apart, Pelini has taken the Penguins to the Football Championship Subdivision National Championship and returns a seasoned group.
Narduzzi’s Panthers have gone 8-5 in both of his years at Pitt and fields a team that has shown it has an offense that can hang with the nation’s best.
In 2016, the Panthers upset eventual national champion Clemson and Big Ten champion Penn State, but a defense that gave up around 35 points a game hamstrung them with losses to Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami and Northwestern.
That offense lost quarterback Nate Peterman and leading rusher James Conner to the NFL, but the Panthers remains loaded on the offensive side of the ball.
Graduate transfer Max Browne comes over from USC after losing his starting role to Heisman contender Sam Darnold. He has the pedigree to do well. In high school, he was USA Today’s national player of the year and is California’s all-time leader in passing yards with 12,953.
The Panthers have a fairly intact O-line with three out of five starters back. Leading receivers Jester Weah and All-American Quadree Henderson return. Replacing Conner — who now wears a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform — is a work in progress.
The defense graduated seven starters and will lose four more today thanks to suspensions.
Pitt is built for shootouts and that’s the last thing Pelini wants. In his Tuesday media session, he recalled that their last meeting was one of the worst defensive games he’s been apart of. Watching film of that game made for a rough sit, but did give him some appreciation for how far the program has come.
“There were some things that were like ‘oh my gosh.’ I did a pretty good job up until that day of blocking out all of those things, but you had to give Pitt credit in some areas,” Pelini said. “It wasn’t the ideal performance, but you don’t know how this game is going to go.”
Calling Henderson a wide receiver may be selling short what he does for the Panthers.
The junior jack-of-all-trades is a returning second team All-American and is on the Maxwell Award watchlist — the honor for best overall player in college football. His name has been circled by the YSU defense.
“[Henderson] is their best player. He gets a lot of jet sweeps and motions,” linebacker Lee Wright said. “We don’t really look into one-on-one match-ups. We try to outscheme them and outplay them.”
Henderson led the nation in combined kick and punt return yardage with 1,166 yards and scored four touchdowns on special teams. He’s the team’s returning leading rusher with 681 yards and five touchdown on 60 carries. He also caught 26 passes for 286 yards and a touchdown.
“I hope he pulls his hamstring,” Pelini joked. “Seriously, he’s a really good football player and they use him well. He’s a tough guy to tackle and we have a lot of respect for him and they have a lot of talent around him.”
Pitt will be missing five players — four on defense and one on offense.
“Them being out is definitely out is definitely a big factor. They were starters,” tight end Kevin Rader said. “They did things off the field that got them in trouble, At the end of the day, whoever they put in there, we still have to gameplan what we want to do not base it off them.”
During the offseason, Pitt kicked two projected starters on the defensive line off the team for disciplinary reasons and will have three more starters out suspended today.
Safety Jordan Whitehead and linebacker Quintin Wirginis are serving the first of a three-game suspension and offensive guard Alex Bookers has a one-game ban stemming from a DUI arrest in May.
Austintown Fitch graduate Darrin Hall will likely see the field against the Penguins. The junior running back is listed as the No. 2 on Pitt’s depth chart behind redshirt-junior Quadree Olson, the returning lead rusher.
Hall rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries and caught five passes. Those numbers are a dropoff from his 2015 numbers because of the return of Conner from a battle with Hodgkin Lymphoma.
The Panthers likely will likely go running back by committee, with sophomore Chawnetz Ross joining the aforementioned pair.
There are three players from just across the Ohio border on Pitt’s roster. Redshirt-sophomore defensive lineman Jim Madure and freshman tight end Tyler Sear are Neshannock (Pa.) graduates. Freshman kicker Jake Scarton went to Hickory (Pa.).