TAMPA, Fla. — There might not be a hotter coach on the rise than Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi, who in his second year with the Panthers knocked off ACC and Big Ten champions Penn State and Clemson.
“Against Penn State, we played angry,” Narduzzi said of the 42-39 victory against the Nittany Lions. “But against Clemson, it was a case of us having a great week of practice and believing we were going to win in their stadium.”
Pitt did just that, 43-42, handing the Tigers their only loss this season heading into their 8:17 p.m. College Football Playoff title game against Alabama tonight at Raymond James Stadium (TV: ESPN).
Narduzzi’s Michigan State defenses finished in the top 10 in the nation four consecutive seasons prior to him taking over as the Panthers’ head coach, and he believes that defense is where it starts for the Crimson Tide tonight.
“The reason we beat Clemson is we stopped the run,” Narduzzi said in an exclusive interview with SECcountry.com. “I don’t have a chance to watch Alabama much, but I know they were better up front than we were this season.
“Defensively, I think they’ll play some man free, Cover 3, Cover 6. They’re always sound and athletic, and really good.”
Narduzzi provided live television analysis for the past two College Football Playoff title games, but he declined the opportunity this season as he’s looking to hire a new offensive coordinator.
Still, Narduzzi plans to keep an eye on the game, curious to see how Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson plays against Alabama.
Narduzzi said he believes the Tigers can win the football game.
“Watson is just a great player, but he didn’t run the ball against us like I thought he would,” Narduzzi said, referring to Watson carrying just 5 times for 8 yards against Pitt. “We didn’t get as many QB runs as I thought,” he said. “Maybe he had a sore shoulder, or maybe they walked in saying we can beat Pitt without our quarterback runs.”
Narduzzi’s stop-the-run-first mentality isn’t too different than Coach Nick Saban’s approach at Alabama, and it paid off against Clemson.
Watson threw three interceptions in the Nov. 12 game at Death Valley, as the run game struggled, gaining just 50 yards on 25 attempts.
Narduzzi said the Tigers’ ability to get the run game going against the Tide is the key to tonight’s game.
“Wayne Gillman is a great tailback, but I don’t think they will give it to one back and say he’ll get it done all by himself, the quarterback has to get involved in the run game,” Narduzzi said. “If Watson and Gillman don’t get the run game going, they’re going to struggle.
“If you ask (Watson) to throw the ball 52 or 54 times against that Alabama secondary, that’s tough,” Narduzzi said.
Watson was 52-of-70 passing for 580 yards and three touchdowns against Pitt, but also, those three interceptions.
“Up front, I think (Clemson) is solid but not great,” Narduzzi said. “You still have to load the box up to stop the run, and the scary part is on the outside where Mike Williams and his backup, (Deon) Cain, are just unbelievable.
“That tight end (Jordan) Leggett is a beast. The Clemson receivers’ and tight ends’ skills are as good as any team in the country. But they better be able to run the football.”