PITTSBURGH – Following an offseason filled with uncertainty, Pitt will take the field this afternoon for a showdown with Austin Peay that will be unlike any other game Pitt has played in its 130 previous seasons.
The contest will be held with no crowd, with no parents present and with new procedures in place to deal with the coronavirus.
That hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of the Panthers players.
“I think our kids are excited to get this thing started and see what kind of football team we have,” coach Pat Narduzzi said on Thursday. “There’s some anxious moments prior to the game where you just kind of want to find out what you have. You play against each other for a month and you don’t know what you have, really, until you get out there and see how these guys are going to play, how they’re going to react to an empty stadium.
“It’s going to be an interesting game.”
Preparing for this game has involved a lot of detailed planning regarding COVID-19 testing. Narduzzi said his players are anxious about the testing they’ll undergo three times a week during football season. Both Pitt and Austin Peay were tested on Friday, with results expected before today’s 4 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field.
“I want our players to feel easy and get their results back as quickly as possible,” Narduzzi said. “If I have a player that texts me, ‘Coach, did you get my results yet’ as soon as I get his, I’m personally texting kids just so they can rest easy that they’re good. It’s anxious moments for these poor kids. It’s hard.”
FACING THE OPTION
On the field, Pitt will have to contend with an Austin Peay team that was ranked No. 10 in the preseason FCS Coaches Poll. Last season, the Governors finished 11-4 and won two playoff games before falling to Montana State in the quarterfinals.
Austin Peay (0-1) fell to Central Arkansas, 24-17, on Aug. 29.
The Governors deploy elements of the option offense. Austin Peay will utilize three running backs, but unlike in a true option, quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall is in shotgun formation.
Pitt may see some benefit from having played Georgia Tech for six seasons during retired coach Paul Johnson’s tenure. Johnson was known for his use of the option in his time at both Navy and Georgia Tech. In the five previous seasons under Narduzzi, Pitt has defeated Georgia Tech four times, including three wins against Johnson’s option offense.
Narduzzi is confident that his defense is prepared.
“You’ve got to play lateral in that game and keep linebackers clean as much as you can. That’ll be the issue, but we’ve been pretty good at doing it,” Narduzzi said. “It’s not foreign to our coaches or our players.”
GOVERNORS TO WATCH
Austin Peay freshman running back C.J. Evans made a splash against Central Arkansas. In the first play from scrimmage of the 2020 college football season, Evans ran for a 75-yard touchdown. He finished the game with 10 rushes for 98 yards.
Pitt’s offense will have to know where Austin Peay defensive back Kordell Jackson is at all times. The senior had a standout year in 2019, with seven interceptions, 47 tackles and three forced fumbles. In the Governors’ game against Mercer a year ago, Jackson returned two interceptions for touchdowns, in addition to three tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and a pass breakup.
“He pops off the tape, he popped off the TV,” Narduzzi said of Jackson. “In their opener, you just kinda go ‘who’s (No.) 13? Look at his stuff.’”
Despite having spring practices and other offseason activities canceled, Narduzzi thinks his team is equipped for today’s matchup and the season as a whole.
“I feel good with where we are. I feel we’re right on track,” Narduzzi said. “This team is as ready as they were last year or the year before or the year before.
“That’s a tribute to our staff, that’s a tribute to our doctors, our trainers and everybody. It’s a major tribute to our kids of believing in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and trusting that we’re doing things right.”