1. Whenever Duke plays Pitt, the offenses are pretty explosive. Obviously wide receiver Tyler Boyd is back, but other than that, it's a relatively different cast of characters from the last two years, no?
Yeah, Pitt's offense has undergone some pretty dramatic changes over the past few months, especially when you consider the narrative going into the season was "Everybody's back!" Losing James Conner in the season opener was certainly a factor, but then Pitt also went through a pretty unexpected quarterback change, with Nate Peterman replacing incumbent Chad Voytik.
From an identity standpoint, Pitt hasn't really tried to change too much, though. The game plan is still to work the clock, run the ball and grind out drives. That's obviously less effective without James Conner, but it has worked at times for Pitt this season (particularly in winning drives against Syracuse and Georgia Tech). The biggest problem for Pitt is that while Boyd has been their most reliable receiver, the big-play ability hasn't really been there the way it has been in the past. That's the biggest thing this offense is really lacking so far, compared to previous years.
2. Tell us about Jordan Whitehead, the rare defensive player who made significant contributions on offense last week in the loss to Notre Dame. How did this come about?
Whitehead was an explosive offensive player at Central Valley High School, just outside of Pittsburgh. He had 286 total offensive yards in the 2014 WPIAL championships at Heinz Field, and really could have played on either side of the ball in college. He has been really good at safety, so there's no reason to thing a permanent position change is in the cards, but it did seem like it was only a matter of time before Pitt started using him on offense in some capacity. He adds a level of explosiveness to the offense that no one outside of Tyler Boyd really has. Narduzzi has talked this week about making sure Whitehead's workload doesn't get too big for him, but I would expect 5-10 offensive touches per game moving forward.
3. Former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is in his first year at Pitt—has the defense changed much under him, or should we still expect a 58-55 or 51-48-type shootout?
Early on, it looked like a full-on defensive renaissance for Pitt under Narduzzi. Recent losses to North Carolina and Notre Dame have tempered that a bit, but I think there is still a general sense of optimism about the defense moving forward under Narduzzi. I know it's pretty cliched coach speak, but he really does seem to have simplified things so Pitt players are more confident in what they're doing than in the past. I know the history of this series suggests a crazy, high-scoring game, but I'd probably put my money on the under Saturday.
4. Speaking of Narduzzi, seeing as he is bringing fresh eyes to the ACC, has he or his staff had any interesting observations about Duke beyond the usual coachspeak?
He's new, but he's still a coach, so not a whole lot. The words that kept coming up when he talked about Duke were "tough" and "toughness." He also thinks that Duke is probably the fastest team Pitt will play this year from a pure tempo perspective. North Carolina was really quick to the line, but often paused and checked the sideline at least once before running the play. Narduzzi said he expects Duke to snap the ball often within 8-12 seconds of the ball being snapped. Mostly, though, he was just very complimentary of the job David Cutcliffe has done down there. As he said, "They’re not a basketball [school] football team. They’re a football team that’s tough."
5. Seeing as Pitt, like Duke, is riding back-to-back losses, is there a postmortem-type feel to the season at all, or are the Panthers still clinging to (slim) hope that they're going to claim a division title?
At least in interviews and whatnot, Pitt players and coaches are holding out hope for a division title. Realistically, this game feels like sort of an inflection point for the season. Pitt's last two games have, admittedly, been really tough, but there's definitely a sense that all the goodwill built up over the team's 6-1 start could begin to slip away. I think Pitt fans were pleasantly surprised to even be in the Coastal mix in late October the way they were, so I don't thing there's a huge disappointment that it's probably out of reach. I think eight wins is probably still the benchmark for progress for this team. They can still get there with a loss Saturday, but it would mean winning out against Louisville and Miami.
Thanks to Sam for his time.