ATLANTA — The Pittsburgh Panthers are looking rejuvenated under first-year coach Pat Narduzzi with a chance to stay unbeaten in the ACC.
Georgia Tech’s season is headed in the opposite direction. Considered the early favorite to win the league’s Coastal Division, the Yellow Jackets are riding a four-game losing streak, their worst in eight seasons under coach Paul Johnson.
Getting quarterback Justin Thomas back in a groove is critical for Georgia Tech (2-4, 0-3 Atlantic Coast Conference).
Injuries at several positions and a lack of experience at other positions have hurt his timing.
After last week’s blowout loss Clemson, the Jackets’ spread option offense faces another tough test against Pitt (4-1, 2-0 ACC). The Panthers’ defense, led by linebacker Matt Galambos, ranks seventh nationally in fewest yards allowed.
Johnson praised Thomas’ work ethic in practice this week, calling it his best of the season. Thomas hopes it translates over into Saturday’s game.
“We haven’t been playing with enough confidence, me included,” Thomas said. “Right now we need to focus on what we’ve always done in this offense. I need to play fast, take what the defense gives me, but I can only do my job. I can’t try to do too much.”
Though Thomas’ run production is less than half his average last season, Narduzzi is concerned he still has plenty of potential to hurt Pitt.
“He does a great job with pitching the ball and not throwing it behind people,” Narduzzi said. “He’s got to get (teammates) in the right check and look to the sideline and be in the no-huddle or the spread option. He’s the key to the offense.”
Some things to watch when Pittsburgh visits Georgia Tech:
TOP TIER TALENT: Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the ACC’s top offensive players, leads the league in catches per game and ranks second in average yards receiving. The junior needs seven catches to become the school’s career leader with 203.
BIG-PLAY GAFFES: Johnson called out himself and his assistants for poor coaching on both sides of the line. The Jackets’ defense has struggled with fundamentals like recognizing formations and overplaying keys. “On the very first long run (at Clemson), we’re slanting inside and we’ve got a guy unblocked that (doesn’t) step out there,” Johnson said.
“Elementary, day-one football. Two guys go in, you come out. Except for us, it ain’t that elementary sometimes. Two guys go in, he goes in. 74 yards later, oh, my bad. We’ve got to coach it better.”
NOT THIS TIME: When Georgia Tech visited Pittsburgh last year, the Panthers trailed 28-0 in the first quarter after losing five fumbles. Though Narduzzi worked last season as defensive coordinator at Michigan State, he has revisited the topic several times this week. Pitt spent extra time in practice focused on ball security. “We’re just making the turnover drills we’ve been doing a little more realistic,” Narduzzi said. “You’ve got to secure the football, and after last year and the nightmare we had there, it can’t happen.”
HOUNDING THE QB: Pitt leads the nation in sacks with 21. That’s two more than it had in 13 games last year. Galambos and senior end Ejuan Price have combined for 7.5.
STILL SIDELINED: Georgia Tech running back Broderick Snoddy, who had career highs in rushing yards and touchdowns in last year’s win at Pitt, is still nursing a hand injury and will not play.