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Two years ago, Pat Narduzzi made a change at quarterback midseason. Now he’s on the verge of doing it again.
In 2015, then-redshirt junior Chad Voytik was Pitt’s returning starter, and he held the job for the first two games of the season before Narduzzi decided to go with Nate Peterman, who had transferred from Tennessee, starting in a Week Three game at Iowa.
Peterman started that game - a 27-24 loss in which he threw two interceptions - and the Panthers’ next 23 games after that.
Now, three games into the 2017 season, Narduzzi is staring down another quarterback decision, although the circumstances are a little different. This time, the transfer got the starting job out of training camp but seems to be headed for a demotion in favor of the player who was already on the roster.
The transfer, of course, is redshirt senior Max Browne, who came to Pitt from USC this offseason looking for one last chance to salvage a career that didn’t follow the expected course for a former five-star prospect. And the pre-existing quarterback is Ben DiNucci, a redshirt sophomore who was a late add to Narduzzi’s first recruiting class and whose college football experience prior to this season was all of nine pass attempts at Yankee Stadium.
Browne came to Pitt to be the starting quarterback, and coming out of training camp, he was. But the Panthers’ offense never seemed to find a rhythm with him on the field, scoring just four touchdowns in the nine quarters he played.
DiNucci’s first action this season came when he relieved Browne two weeks ago at Penn State. Browne’s helmet had been knocked off, causing him to leave the game with the offense at the PSU 3, and on his first snap of the 2017 season, DiNucci ran into the end zone for a touchdown. DiNucci also converted a two-point attempt after the touchdown, but Browne came back in for Pitt’s next drive and started this past weekend’s game against Oklahoma State.
And it was in the midst of that game that Narduzzi made the first big move with the quarterbacks, benching Browne in the second quarter with Pitt trailing 35-0. As fate would have it, DiNucci’s first snap once again had a positive result, as he threw a screen pass on first down to Quadree Henderson, who took off for 74 yards on the play. Three plays later, Chawntez Moss ran into the end zone and DiNucci had another touchdown drive under his belt.
Pitt’s next possession was a three-and-out, but DiNucci ended the first half on a high note with a 13-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in another touchdown. He didn’t play as well in the second half - just 81 passing yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions - but he played well enough to earn, at a minimum, an “OR” designation on the depth chart listing of quarterbacks this week, and by kickoff on Saturday at 12:20 in Atlanta, he could be outright starter.
“It's a coaching feel,” Narduzzi said Monday when discussing the impending decision. “We're going to continue to evaluate. They both do some really good things on tape. Obviously Ben sparked things with his feet and his athletic ability and what he can do running the ball, and he does some great things, which we know.”
Narduzzi said that practice this week will determine the starter, but also conceded that he, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and the rest of the offensive staff “have some thoughts.”
It’s unlikely Narduzzi will make an announcement on the starter before Saturday’s game, but it also seems to be equally unlikely that Browne will reclaim the job; after making the change, Pitt will probably give DiNucci ample opportunity to show what he can do with an offense that has been decided un-explosive through three games this season.
“We've just got to make some playsm” Narduzzi said. “We overthrow a big ball the other day, which is an explosive, and we lose a couple. We've got some guys open that we're not finding or hitting with both quarterbacks in there, and we're throwing it to the wrong guy at times.”
Those issues are not limited to Browne; after all, DiNucci threw two interceptions against Oklahoma State. But Pitt needed a spark and the coaches felt like DiNucci gave it to them on Saturday. Now he’ll likely get a chance to do it from the beginning of a game.