Pat Narduzzi is always learning as a football coach, so there were few things that caught him off-guard in his first year leading Pitt.
"I’ll be learning the next five years, but really there were no surprises, nothing that I felt like I wasn’t ready for," Narduzzi said. "Really it was what I expected. It’s college football, and very similar to what I’d done as a defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, trying to run the defense and just put on a different color hat and have a few more guys.
"I guess the biggest thing is when you’ve got guys coming in wanting to talk about playing time or this or that. I probably did a little bit more of that (than you) anticipate having to do. I think I remember (Mark) Dantonio’s first year that he had a lot of those conversations."
Those comments echo the expectations that Narduzzi spoke of back in the spring, when he was tasked with giving the Panthers their edge back after four straight 6-6 regular seasons. An 8-4 mark in Year 1 exceeded most outside expectations, and Pitt can put a nice bow on the campaign Monday against No. 21 Navy in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman.
The game will mark Pitt’s second contest this season against a triple-option team, as the Panthers won Oct. 17 at Georgia Tech, 31-28. A win against the Midshipmen will give Pitt its winningest season since 2009.
"Cutting down big plays," linebacker Nicholas Grigsby said of what he can take away from Georgia Tech. "The big plays they hit may have been one guy, two guys out of position. So we’ve got to make sure we tighten down on the execution. There’s a lot of parts of their offense, so you’ve just got to make sure you know what’s your assignment, and do that with great effort."
Narduzzi downplayed the experience of beating the Yellow Jackets, saying that Navy’s film on Pitt’s defense negates the Panthers’ potential advantage. Complicating matters for Pitt is that this is the finale for Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting after throwing for 1,077 yards, rushing for 1,229 yards and tallying 28 total touchdowns with just two turnovers.
"You’ve just got to make sure you find your edge, whether it’s film, staying in shape -- just make sure you find your edge so you can beat your opponent," Grigsbsy said. "So we’ve just got to make sure we tighten down and make sure we do our jobs and execute."
On the sideline with Pitt will be running back James Conner, the reigning ACC player of the year who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma on Thanksgiving. Despite going through chemotherapy treatments, Conner -- who missed 11 of 12 games this season with an MCL injury -- has been a staple at Panthers practices, and Narduzzi has even gotten him involved in bowl practices a bit while in street clothes.
Narduzzi has shared with Conner the story of Arthur Ray, a former Michigan State offensive lineman whose college career was put on hold in 2007 when he was diagnosed with cancer in his leg. The players' impacts on their teams have been similar, Narduzzi said.
"(Ray) was an inspiration for rest of the football team in how he went about his business, and James has been the same way," Narduzzi said. "He’s been exactly the same with his first round of chemotherapy. They wanted to put him in a special room, he’s like: 'No, I’ll stay right here. I want to be right here with everybody else. I’m not special.'
"That’s the type of guy he is. He doesn’t want any special treatment, so I think our kids will feed off of that."