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“Good afternoon. Just to go back to last week, we had our first bye week. It came right in the middle of the season, which is obviously a good time, for not only the guys that have missed time injury-wise but also guys that have played and are dinged up and that needed a little bit of a break right there. So, it was a good time to have that. Hopefully, a lot of the guys got healed up last week, and obviously the main one that everybody really cares about is (Malik) Cunningham, and he’s healed up. He’s ready to go, he practiced Sunday. He had a good practice on Sunday, and then will also practice this afternoon and be ready to go this week. He’s progressed well and he’s ready to go. Obviously, when you’re dealing with those kinds of injuries, you rely on your medical staff and the trainers and all that’s been good to go.
We get to be at home now finally for a stretch, get three home games in a row which is going to be nice. Starting with Pitt, who is obviously a really good football team. They won the ACC last year and have a lot of experience back this year. Difference for this team this year from Pitt from last year is obviously the quarterback, but they did get a transfer from Southern California (Kedon Slovis) who is an outstanding quarterback. Really good passer. They did lose their best receiver, the best receiver last year in college football (Jordan Addison) to Southern California. But they’re still a really good balanced offense, they throw and run equally well.
I think the strength of their offense is up front, probably the best offensive line that we’ve played this year. A lot of experience there, I think all five starters are back from last year. They play probably seven or eight guys up front, and they do a great job with that. We saw what the running back (Israel Abanikanda) did when he rushed for 320 yards in their last game with five or six touchdowns against Virginia Tech. He went off, had an incredible day. He’s an outstanding back, leading ACC in rushing. He’s strong, he can run, he’s really fast when he breaks the line of scrimmage. I think that’s the difference. You get some shifty backs, or you get just a home run guy that’s maybe not good in between the tackles. He’s just a complete back. He’s good in between the tackles but also when he gets to the second level, he can take it to the house, and I think that’s what he proved last game when he did some great things.
Defensively, a Coach (Pat) Narduzzi team is going to have a great defense. Whether it was at Michigan State or Pitt, they’ve always played great defense. The years where they were really, really good is when their offense scores a lot of points and that’s why they won last year. But this year, their defense is loaded again. They have one of the best interior defensive tackles, (Calijah Kancey). He’s an outstanding player, hard to block, undersized but extremely quick, great with his hands, and causes havoc; he’s a big-time player. Their linebackers are aggressive. (Sirvocea Dennis) is an outstanding linebacker; he can play outside, can play inside, he can do a lot. He played against us two years ago and was a great player. Then I think in the secondary is where they’re really, really good as well. (Erick Hallett II) is an outstanding safety. I think he’s got eight pass breakups, three interceptions and he does a wonderful job. He can really run, one of the fastest safeties we’ve played against. Then they play man to man on the corners on the outside so when they do blitz, they’re a great blitzing team. They put pressure on the offense, and they’re not coming in half-heartedly, they’re full bore when they’re blitzing. It’s very impressive to watch how they do that. They’ve been doing it for years, they’re really good at it, and they know what they’re doing on that side of the ball.
We have to be very good in our execution offensively. On the offensive line, we have to play well in order to block those guys up front, which is obviously a big key. Defensively, you certainly got to load up the box to stop the run. If you don’t, they’ll play big ball and just run the ball down your throat. We got to do a great job of trying to slow the run game down and hopefully making them one-dimensional if we can. Special teams, they’ve done a great job blocking kicks this year. Again, they’re aggressive with that; they’ve blocked three kicks and two punts on the season which is outstanding in the special teams aspect. So, they’re a well-coached team and now obviously a team that’s got a lot of confidence, took Tennessee into overtime this year and we all know how good they are. So, we’re looking forward to playing these guys after a week off, and they had a bye week as well so we’ll both have two weeks off as we come into this game. We’re looking forward to getting these guys on the field.”
(You alluded to the fact that Malik (Cunningham) will be back this week. How much does his absence remind you of the dimensions he brings to the offense and how much do you appreciate that?)
“Obviously, Malik (Cunningham) brings a lot to our offense, especially with his legs. He certainly can run, I think he may be number two in the ACC in rushing right now, 91 yards a game and he’s rushed for nine touchdowns. So, it’s a dynamic that teams have to defend, and we know that. When he’s in balance and has great fundamentals, and he’s an outstanding passer as well, so he puts a lot of pressure on defenses. We certainly want to have him available to be able to come out and play. I thought Brock (Domann) last week, minus the first quarter because obviously the first quarter was not very good, but he played outstanding in the last three quarters and really ran our offense and did some great things, and that allows us to know that we have another viable option to be able to play. I think that obviously helps your offense, to get some more experience there. But to have Malik back, he’s played a ton of football for us and done a lot of great things, and hopefully he’ll have a great week of practice and be ready to play a great game this weekend.”
(During the bye week, you guys got out and did a lot of recruiting. Can you speak to the momentum you still have on the recruiting trail?)
“Yeah, we took some time. We practiced Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and the guys were out Friday, Saturday, and Monday of last week. Just going out and seeing our committed guys, and some others as well. It was great to go out and be able to see some games, see these guys, and still continue the momentum in recruiting, and hopefully pick up another one or two as we head down the road here. With these home games coming up, we’ll be hosting some really good recruits here over the next few weeks, official visits and unofficial visits. I think that’ll be big for us. Continuing that dialogue with all of these recruits. We’re talking to them all the time, and you have to be able to do that because we know it’s not completely over until signing day, until you get them here. A lot of schools are trying to jockey to get some of our players as you go back and look, and these guys are starting to put some great film out from their senior year, and these other schools really want to get in on those guys. For us, it’s all about just continuing to build relationships, continue to talk, and I think that’s what the bye week is about. It’s about going out and going to their high schools, watching them play, getting transcripts, and really showing them that they are a huge priority for us and for our program.”
(You mentioned Malik and his situation but there were others like Tiyon Evans, Jalen Mitchell, Kenderick Duncan, and Adonis Boone. Ahmari (Huggins-Bruce) had tweeted out that he’s going to be out for two games. Can you speak to those players and what their statuses are with injuries?)
“Yeah, they’re all a little different. I think all those guys are practicing. They all practiced Sunday. Tiyon was still a little bit limited on Sunday, but everyone else practiced and was good to go. I think Mitchell is back and fully healthy which is good, he’s missed four or five weeks. He brings a lot of experience; we’re talking about a guy who started eleven games last year and was a very solid back for us. I think he will be in the fold this week. Duncan practiced Sunday. Tiyon practiced, but to me, Tiyon is probably still the biggest question mark. I think everybody else will be available and ready to go. Ahmari will be practicing all week again this week. I’m not going to speak on anything he tweeted out or that type of thing. I think any kind of personnel adjustments that we need to make, and we have always done this; on Saturday if we need to make an adjustment we will, and you guys will know that on Saturday. With all the injured guys, we should be good to go. Tiyon, we’ll know more about today and tomorrow as we head through these next two workdays.”
(Being the halfway point, what is your reflection on the first half? And then your thoughts about the second half of the season which certainly looks pretty challenging.)
“The first half, we felt like there were a couple of games that got away that we felt we had a great chance to win. I’m very disappointed in those losses. This day and age in college football, it’s hard to win. I’ve said that forever and there probably is more parity now than there ever has been. If you look across college football, it’s incredible. Just sitting back on Saturday evening watching a few games and seeing these guys play, it’s incredible. A team loses a guy, you look at NC State who unfortunately lost their quarterback for the season and what an impact it could have on a football team. You can lose one player like that, and things don’t happen well for you. I think about Cunningham not playing for us, and we played a backup, and we go out and get a big win on the road in conference play. That’s huge. That’s huge for us. There were a lot of teams last week who played their backup quarterback and didn’t win. The ability to go out there and get those wins is crucial when you do have guys that are in backup roles, particularly when you get to this part of the season. As we get to this second half of the season, there’s going to be more of that. There’s going to be more guys that are going to be out, and teams don’t have their guys. The next guys up have to be able to go in there and play. We have been that way at running back. We’ve played a bunch of different running backs, five guys really, and you just rotate those guys in. That may happen at other positions as well when you get to this part of the season. Second half of the season is very challenging. All six (upcoming) teams have been ranked at some point and/or are ranked. For us, you go out and play well, if you can get some wins against these ranked teams, it’s certainly going to help us. I think it’s a great challenge for our guys. We know we have to go out and play great ball. You can’t not be good at one phase. You have to be really good at all three phases. We have to take care of the ball. We have to create some turnovers, and all these things have to happen in order for us to get these wins. But that’s the way it is for most college football games we look at nowadays. It is extremely competitive all across the country, I don’t care what league we’re in.”
(Coming off the bye week halfway through the season, is there any notion as far as the message to the team that you can’t go back and start over, but it’s a new start and a lot of big opportunities ahead, was there kind of a theme like that?)
“It’s a one-game season, everything we have is all on Pitt. We can’t think about what we did in the past. Now we got to learn from the things we did, but we can’t dwell on it. Now this team, with who we’ve got available this week, we look at the injuries, we look at all the different things that are happening, and focus everything we can on Pitt and come up with a great game plan, offense, defense, kicking and go out and execute that game plan. Everything’s focused on Pitt. We can’t worry about what we got in the future, all the tough games. We can’t worry about that, we can’t worry about what we did in the past and try to stay focused. I think that’s one of the most difficult things as you think about 18 to 22-year-olds is keeping them focused right now on the task at hand. There are so many distractions out there, so many things going on. Right here right now, be where your feet are is one thing that we always tell our guys. We’ll really focus on that in today’s practice, it’s a big day for us where we put in the whole game plan in today on Tuesday. We got to go out here and really try to execute that game plan. It’s just that time of year, a lot of things have happened, “my hamstring is hurt, my whatever hurts, do I feel like going out today?” Well, we got to go. I do think that’s a benefit of the bye week. I do think our guys got healed up last week, got to feel fresh. They had Friday off, they had Saturday off, had Monday off, so I do think today they’ll be feeling the best they’ve felt in some time.”
((The win over Virginia) looked like one of your cleanest wins in terms of operation. From a penalty and operation standpoint, is that more like what you want to see and what do you think went into that improvement?)
“I thought it was our cleanest game. We also didn’t have any lost yardage plays. That was the first time since 2003 that we didn’t have any lost yardage plays, that’s hard to do. But it kept us on the sticks. We averaged third and five on third downs compared to early in the season, we were averaging third and eight, third and nine, or third and ten, that was our average. So, I thought that was huge, but that speaks to what you’re talking about. We played a clean game, offensively and defensively. That just gives you an opportunity to win those games. We stayed on task, and I thought that was huge and we continued that. We’ve been trying to do that. I think we’ve certainly helped ourselves penalty-wise the last few weeks, I think we’ve gotten a lot better in that. It still comes down to the turnover margin. That’s one of the biggest stats that’s out there, and we had a couple of turnovers but we turned them over and I thought that part was huge as well. But certainly, the goal is to play a clean game and not have those penalties, take care of the football, and it gives you a chance to win.”
(Obviously, when you look at your offense, Virginia’s defense and Pittsburgh’s defense are two different things, but are there some things that you saw from that Virginia game that you will likely try to continually incorporate?)
“I think each week is different when you look at the defense that we’re playing this week compared to that (Virginia’s) defense. One thing I liked about that is what I just mentioned. We stayed on task there. I just go back to the (Boston College) game. We had some lost yardage plays that knocked us off. Now you’re looking at second and 14, it’s a lot harder to get that going back again. I thought we did a much better job in this game (Virginia) of having those second and six and second and sevens. Now, that’s going to put us in a manageable third down. If you noticed on third down, there were times where we just ran the football and picked up first downs. It was our best third down day that we had. It was because of what we did on the earlier downs. I do think that is one thing that we certainly want to be more like. Having said that, we’re playing a Pitt defense that is very aggressive. I look back at 2020 against Pitt, that was maybe our worst offensive performance we’ve had. We got sacked maybe six times. We just didn’t do anything all day, they got after us. We learned a lot that day as well. Whatever we did that day, don’t do any of that this game. I think we had one play, 75 yards. We went for a big, long run. That’s about all we did. So just take that and throw it away and start over. I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s about playing a clean game. That’s the big thing: keeping us on task, so we have those manageable situations. That day at Pitt, our best third down was third and six. Everything else was third and seven or more. It’s hard to play winning football when you’re doing that, and they had a lot to do with that. But we have to stay on task and not put ourselves in those difficult situations to try and overcome.”
(The offensive line has played well in the last couple of weeks. It seems like even with some injuries, (Michael) Gonzalez and Luke (Kandra) have played a ton. Are you seeing those guys, when they’re in there, that are really making plays?)
“Both of those guys, (Luke) Kandra and (Michael) Gonzalez, we treat them like starters, whether they start or not. They are like starters, so they’ve played a ton of football. We have got some guys dinged, Renato (Brown), (Adonis) Boone, Trevor (Reid), all those guys have gotten dinged a little bit. So, we’ve kind of rotated, but they’ve been solid. Last week, we didn’t give up any sacks. There were no tackles for loss. That’s offensive line play. That’s great O-Line play. There are going to be times where your quarterback’s going to get hit. I thought Brock got hit a few times, but the ball is getting released, and we’re not taking those lost yardage plays. A lot of that is the guys up front. It is a huge challenge this week. As I mentioned, (Calijah Kancey) and (David Green) are great interior defensive linemen. These linebackers bring pressure. We have to have a great plan of knowing how to pick these guys up. The other thing is, you can know where they’re coming from, but you have to block them too. These guys are relentless, and I think that’s where they separate themselves from some other teams with how relentless they are when they do bring pressure.”