Surging Pitt looking to go out on high note

Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) runs past Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris (44) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) runs past Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris (44) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

PITTSBURGH — The near-misses still eat at Pat Narduzzi. As good as the Pittsburgh coach feels about his team as it heads into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Syracuse, the memory of the ones that got away still linger.

“When you look at our losses, they’re like this,” Narduzzi said Monday, putting his thumb and index finger an inch apart. “It’s interesting we didn’t get (them). I look back at how close we are to winning them all. God if we had done this as coaches, maybe we would have won every one of those games.”

Outside of a second half meltdown at Miami earlier this month, he’s right. Pitt’s three other losses — to Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and North Carolina — were by a combined 11 points.

Yet Narduzzi and the Panthers (7-4, 4-3) have done an excellent job of not getting caught up in what might have been. They’re surging toward the finish line following a 56-14 romp over Duke last weekend that may have been their most complete performance in Narduzzi’s two-year tenure. And while Pitt still needs to beat Syracuse (4-7, 2-5) to match its eight-win total of last season, the feeling this time around is decidedly different.

“Without a doubt, it’s a much better group,” Narduzzi said.

One that didn’t let the raw emotions of disapdisappointment bleed from one Saturday to the next, something Narduzzi credited in part to the maturity of a team featuring 19 seniors and 16 redshirt juniors.

“It tells you what kind of leadership we have, that (finishing strong) is what they’re talking about, not girls and where they’re going tonight,” he said.

Knowing the offense is going to find innovative ways to move the ball week in and week out certainly helped.

The Panthers have already set a school record for points in a season (432) with two more games to go thanks to the creative tinkering by first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada. A unit that began the year with no proven playmakers at wide receiver is averaging 39.27 points. Pitt has thrived behind junior running back James Conner, steady play by senior quarterback Nate Peterman, do-everything wide receiver/returner Quadree Henderson and a seemingly endless variety of formations designed to highlight mismatches and take advantage of a big and experienced offensive line.

“You come in on Mondays, you don’t know what (Canada is) going to throw at you,” offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty said. “All the motion we do, you just never know what he’s going to do. Sometimes I feel he sits in that offense a little too long (and) draws up some plays that are unreal. They just seem to work.”

The Panthers have needed them to work while one of the nation’s worst pass defenses figured things out. Even after holding Duke to 243 yards through the air, Pitt is still 127th in the nation against the pass. Yet that hasn’t stopped it from being on the cusp of winning eight games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008-2009.

“It’s a different world (than when I got here in 2012),” Bisnowaty said. “I think the program is about winning … My first year we won six games or so, last year we won eight. This year we have a chance to win more than that. It’s just going back to playing the best football we can play.”

NOTES: Conner was named the winner of the 2016 Disney Sports Spirit Award on Monday. The award is given annually to the nation’s most inspirational player. Conner was diagnosed with cancer last Thanksgiving and went through months of draining chemotherapy but has returned to the form that helped him capture the 2014 ACC Player of the Year. Conner became the ACC’s all-time leading touchdown scorer last week when his two scored against Duke gave him 53 on his career.

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