Surging No. 20, NC State wary as it visits struggling Pitt
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) North Carolina State's impressive start, the one that's seen the Wolfpack crack the top 20 for the first time since 2003, is among the biggest early surprises in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Just not to Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. A voting member in the weekly coach's poll, Narduzzi has been penciling No. 20 N.C. State in his own personal Top 25 from the start. Narduzzi became convinced watching video over the summer. A dominant defensive line and the stability provided by fifth-year coach Dave Doeren made Narduzzi a believer.
"When you give a guy that much time to do his deal (it works)," Narduzzi said. "My hats go off to those folks there for hanging in, and they've got a good football team, from skill all the way to the line, on both sides of the ball."
One that heads to Pittsburgh for the first time in 30 years wary of falling into the trap of looking ahead. A trip to Notre Dame and a visit by Clemson loom over the next three weeks for the Wolfpack (5-1, 3-0 ACC), whose current five-game winning streak is the program's longest in 15 years. By comparison, the Panthers (2-4, 0-2) might not look so intimidating.
Then again, Doeren is quick to remind his team it hasn't proven a thing yet.
"We've put ourselves in a great place, but that doesn't mean we're satisfied at all," Doeren said. "Got a great focus on where we want to go."
Namely to the ACC title game. Getting blindsided by the Panthers with the defending national champions on the schedule would put a massive dent in that momentum.
"We can't ever think that we've made it, because we haven't," Doeren said. "We're at the halfway point and we want to continue this ride, and the only way we can do that is to improve."
The same goes for Pitt. The Panthers are still searching for stability at quarterback. Sophomore Ben DiNucci will return to a starting role with graduate transfer Max Browne's collegiate career over following shoulder surgery. Freshman Kenny Pickett will serve as DiNucci's backup, and Narduzzi has shown an itch trigger finger when the offense sputters.
Regardless of who is under center, Pitt needs something resembling consistent play if it has any hopes of qualifying for a bowl for a 10th straight season.
"If we start looking ahead, we're going to be in big trouble," Narduzzi said. "We're not smart enough. We're not mature enough to ever look ahead. We've got to focus on North Carolina State."
PICKETT'S CHARGE?: When DiNucci was forced to sit out the final play against Syracuse after having his helmet knocked off, Narduzzi opted to give Pickett his first collegiate snap. It effectively burned any thoughts the Panthers had of redshirting Pickett this season. It wasn't a move Narduzzi made in haste. There's real belief on the coaching staff that Pickett can be effective if DiNucci struggles.
"He's developed while he's here and (offensive coordinator Shawn) Watson enjoys him in the meeting room because he can answer a lot of questions," Narduzzi said. "He understands the game."
IN MEMORIAM: N.C. State's players will wear the initials "JR" on their helmets to honor the late father of defensive end Darian Roseboro. Johnny Roseboro died last week in Lincolnton and Darian said on Twitter that he is dedicating the game to his dad. Roseboro is listed on the depth chart at one defensive end position with Kentavius Street.
FAMILIAR: The Wolfpack expect Pitt's offense to look quite familiar, since both schools have employed Matt Canada as their offensive coordinator. Canada was N.C. State's coordinator from 2013-15, and spent last season running Pitt's offense after he was let go by the Wolfpack. He now has the same position at LSU. "They've probably asked (new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson) to keep some of the stuff that Matt did that was working for them," Doeren said. "Defensively, we see that from our offense ... because we do a lot of that stuff here, too."
CONNER RETURNS. SORTA: The Panthers are hoping the lure of former Pitt star running back James Conner will help goose attendance. The Panthers are giving away Conner bobble heads to the first 30,000 fans at Heinz Field. Conner, how a rookie running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said he approves of the promotion but joked the bobble heads are a cross between himself and President Barack Obama.
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, North Carolina contributed to this report.
More AP college football coverage: http://collegefootball.ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AP-Top25.
Updated October 13, 2017