TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Pittsburgh was expected to take a step forward and be one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top teams in 2020. Florida State was presumed to have a dominant defense and return to prominence in the league.
Neither program has found much success but each looks to return to the field following a bye week with a victory that they hope will build confidence for the final month of the season.
The Panthers (3-4, 2-4 ACC) have allowed 30 or more points in four straight games, all of them losses, and Pittsburgh has been without starting quarterback Kenny Pickett in the last two games. Meanwhile, the Seminoles (2-4, 1-4) have given up 35 points per game and have allowed more than 500 offensive yards in their last three games.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi empathizes with the challenge that Florida State’s Mike Norvell has had, taking over a storied program but also trying to install his system despite the limited practice opportunities and offseason restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Probably had one of the toughest jobs going in, like any coach that comes in with a whole new staff, a new coordinator on offense and defense, without spring ball,” Narduzzi said.
Florida State has been plagued by inconsistency. The Seminoles have faced three teams who were ranked in the top 15, suffering a blowout 52-10 loss at Miami before showing progress in a 42-26 loss at Notre Dame and then stunning North Carolina 31-28. But the Seminoles finished the first half of the season with a 48-16 loss at Louisville where the Seminoles’ receivers dropped numerous passes and Louisville had five touchdowns of 10 or more yards.
“You try to learn through success and failure and we all know that,” defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said. “But we’re super inconsistent whether it’s the run game or the pass game right now.”
Florida State has found a quarterback that can energize the offense in Jordan Travis, who has a rushing touchdown and passing touchdown in the last four games — the longest streak in school history.
Pittsburgh’s question mark begins at quarterback where senior Kenny Pickett, who threw for 3,098 yards in 2019, has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury and it’s uncertain if he will play on Saturday. Freshman Joey Yellen has filled in, but he has completed just 44.7% of his passes and had three interceptions in Pittsburgh’s 45-3 loss to Notre Dame.
Some other things to watch when Florida State hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday:
STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH
Florida State has been able to count on a ground attack that has produced 200 yards in back-to-back games. Led by Travis (389 rushing yards, 5 TDs) and 5-foot-8 tailback La’Damian Webb (336 rushing yards, three TDs), the Seminoles are racking up an average of 197 rushing yards per game.
But an improved Seminoles offensive line and ground attack will meet its toughest test on Saturday. Pittsburgh is allowing just 1.94 yards per carry and 69 rushing yards per game.
RUNNING IN PLACE
Narduzzi spent the offseason insisting the Panthers needed to be more balanced in 2020 after relying so heavily on the pass last year. It hasn’t worked. Pitt is currently 93rd in the country in yards rushing per game (98.0), a number that has dropped to 65.5 yards per game during their losing streak. Things could turn around against Florida State, which has allowed 208.6 rushing yards per game (92nd among the 115 FBS teams in 2020).
Pitt’s defense was dealt a significant blow when junior safety Paris Ford, the team’s leading tackler, opted out of the final four games of the season to prepare for the NFL draft.
Brandon Hill, Judson Tallandier, Buddy Mack and Erick Hallett will all be given a crack at replacing Ford. Whoever is back there will need to help the Panthers find a way to seal a leaky back end that has been hit hard by big plays. Pitt has allowed 12 touchdowns of 25 or more yards this season.
Florida State played its last two games without leading receiver Tamorrion Terry, who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in 2019. Terry had knee surgery but has returned to practice. It’s not clear if he will play.
Also uncertain is the return of safety Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State’s leading tackler last fall. Nasirildeen has been listed on the Seminoles’ depth chart since week 2 but just recently returned to practice, Norvell said.
Pitt is playing at Florida State for the first time since 1982, when Dan Marino was the quarterback and led the Panthers to a 37-17 victory. Saturday’s game is the first time the teams have faced off since the 2013 opener at Pittsburgh, where the Seminoles won 41-13 in Jameis Winston’s debut to begin the team’s run to the national title.
AP Sports writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report