PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Narduzzi likes to play a game with the Pittsburgh depth chart. Most weeks the Panthers head coach will put an “OR” between two names at a given position. Sometimes the “OR” is simply a motivational tool to get a starter to snap out of a funk. Sometimes it’s to reward a backup who is pushing for more playing time.
While there were “ORs” at defensive end, free safety and cornerback on the depth chart released Monday, there was not one at quarterback.
Max Browne is still running the show for the Panthers. And head coach Pat Narduzzi is in no rush to flip to sophomore Ben DiNucci with No. 9 Oklahoma State (2-0) coming to Heinz Field this weekend.
If anything, Narduzzi would like to see the guys surrounding Browne in the huddle to pick it up following a 33-14 loss to Penn State . Narduzzi pointed to protection problems and an inability for wide receivers to connect on big plays as major issues for Pitt (1-1) heading into its second showdown against a top 10 team in as many weeks.
The Panthers have allowed eight sacks in all through two weeks and the longest reception by a receiver through eight-plus quarters is just 22 yards. Browne watched the final minutes at Beaver Stadium from the sideline after taking a shot that left the Southern California graduate transfer with a sizable gash over his right eye.
“We’ve given up too many sacks, period, so something has got to change there,” Narduzzi said.
Just not, Narduzzi stressed, who is taking the snaps.
While Narduzzi will continue to look for opportunities to get DiNucci some playing time, Browne remains the starter. Browne completed 19 of 32 for 138 yards and two interceptions against Penn State, though Narduzzi spent Sunday poring over video trying to figure out how things went wrong. On balance, Pitt’s issues in the passing game were a collaborative effort.
“I was pretty happy after watching the tape with him more than I was maybe after the game, and I wasn’t disappointed after the game at all because I told you how I felt after the game,” Narduzzi said. “You know, so does he have room for improvement? Yes. And so do I.”
Browne threw an interception on Pitt’s first possession when he tried to hit Quadree Henderson down the Penn State sideline. Henderson was late getting out of his break and the ball sailed over his head and into the hands of Nittany Lions defensive back Grant Haley, who returned it 42 yards to set up a touchdown. Browne attributed the pick to an adjustment in coverage by Penn State while Narduzzi hinted Henderson’s own effort on the play may have been an issue. Henderson tried to arm tackle Haley after the pick but the Penn State cornerback easily sped through it.
Asked if he sensed Henderson — an All-American as a return specialist last season — was getting “frustrated” after being held to 38 total yards on nine touches, Narduzzi laughed.
“I’m getting frustrated with him, how about that?” Narduzzi said.
The Panthers don’t have much time to recover. They lost a 45-38 thriller at Oklahoma State last year, remarkable considering they allowed Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph to throw for 540 yards, including 296 to wide receiver James Washington. Both are back for more on Saturday. It was the low point of a difficult season for the Pitt secondary, which allowed the second-most yards in the FBS in 2016.
The group appears to have taken a step forward through two games even with safety Jordan Whitehead serving a three-game suspension. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley completed 15 of 28 for only 164 yards and a touchdown as the Panthers generated steady pressure.
It’s a blueprint Pitt will need to follow against Oklahoma State if it wants to have any chance of quickly removing the sour taste left by a frustrating afternoon against its biggest rival. Narduzzi, however, is ready to move on. Asked for a reaction to Penn State coach James Franklin’s postgame comment that beating the Panthers was akin to beating Akron (whom the Nittany Lions shut out in the 2017 opener, Narduzzi declined to stoke the fire.
“They went low,” Narduzzi said, “and we went high.”