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Panthers looks to avoid 0-2 start as Solich-led Ohio visits

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

By WILL GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) Pittsburgh will try to avoid its first 0-2 start since 2005 when Ohio visits Heinz Field.

Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi knows the Bobcats' visit on Saturday may look like a trap. It comes after a physical 16-point loss to Virginia and before a trip to rival Penn State.

In case there's a risk of under-estimating the Bobcats, Narduzzi showed his team the videotape.

"Ohio U. ... is good enough to whoop your tail," he said.

That's what the Bobcats did to Pitt in 2005 when they pulled off a stunning 16-10 overtime victory in Frank Solich's home debut as Ohio coach. All of the principles in that game are long gone save for one: Solich. That's reason enough for the Panthers to worry.

Narduzzi is an admirer of Solich's work, including his lengthy career at Nebraska as an assistant and head coach. The Cornhuskers fired Solich after going 9-3 in 2003. While Solich has moved on, Narduzzi has not.

"The guy never should have got let go there," Narduzzi said. "Probably one of the biggest mistakes in Nebraska history is letting Frank Solich go."

Not that the Bobcats are complaining.

Now in his 15th season, Solich has built Ohio into a consistent contender in the Mid-American Conference. The Bobcats were the unanimous preseason choice to win the MAC's East Division. They looked the part during a 41-20 victory over FCS-level Rhode Island last weekend as Ohio senior quarterback Nathan Rourke threw for two touchdowns and added another on the ground.

Pitt should be prepared for Rourke after facing Virginia's Bryce Perkins, who was held to 183 yards passing and 2.4 yards per carry last week. However, Perkins threw a pair of short touchdown passes in the second half of a 30-14 win .

"There's a lot of similarities (between Rourke and Perkins)," Narduzzi said. "Yeah, but that's life in college football. Everybody is spread it out. Nathan loves to run the zone read ... He's a good football player."

Some more things to look for Saturday:

GREAT MINDS: Solich and Narduzzi have a long relationship, with Narduzzi often playing host to members of Solich's defensive staff while an assistant at Michigan State. It's no coincidence that Ohio's defense mimics the one Narduzzi formed with the Spartans.

"He's what we built our defense around, with his philosophy and his approach," Solich said. "He's a great coach. I think he's doing an excellent job. It's never easy when you take over a program and you're trying to make it all fit and work together. He's a great recruiter and a great organizer and his style of coaching will take them a long way."

PASSING FANCY: Pitt promised a more balanced offense under new coordinator Mark Whipple. Quarterback Kenny Pickett attempted a career-high 41 passes against Virginia. However, all those drop backs came at a significant price. Pickett absorbed four sacks, threw a couple of interceptions and was constantly hit after letting the ball go.

"We had guys open more than you can think," Narduzzi said. "And we've just got to make better, quicker decisions and get the ball out."

CARRYING THE LOAD: Ohio experimented at running back against Rhode Island. Julian Ross, De'Montre Tuggle, O'Shaan Allison and Ja'Vahri Portis all had at least three carries. The Bobcats averaged a healthy 7.3 yards per carry. Given the production, Solich has no plans to abandon the committee approach.

"They all can contribute with their style of play," Solich said. "We'll continue with that for a little while, but eventually someone is probably going to surface."

LINE SHUFFLE: Pitt's defensive line will play the rest of the season without junior Keyshawn Camp, who had knee surgery this week after getting hurt against Virginia. Camp is the second defensive line starter to be done for the year, joining junior Rashad Weaver, who injured his knee during a non-contact drill at training camp. Senior Amir Watts will replace Camp.

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Updated September 6, 2019

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