- Associated Press - Friday, September 29, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi closed practice this week and made his quarterbacks off limits to the media. Clearly Narduzzi is tired of talking about his team’s inability to find any sort of offensive rhythm, one that is lacking regardless of who is under center.

Ben DiNucci has been OK … in spots. Max Browne has been OK … in spots. The results, however, have been anything but OK . The Panthers (1-3) take the first three-game losing streak of Narduzzi’s tenure into Saturday’s visit from Rice (1-3). And while the Owls have their own decidedly real-world concerns - namely, helping their community recover from the widespread flooding that followed Hurricane Harvey - from a football standpoint, the defense is proving effective when it’s a fair fight.

While Rice was lit up in losses to Stanford and Houston, the Owls have been stingy against fellow Conference USA opponents, holding both UTEP and Florida International under 275 total yards. Considering the Panthers rank 87th or worse in nearly every major offensive category, from points (109th) to rushing (97th) to total offense (108th), Narduzzi is well aware nothing can be taken for granted.

Rather than panic, Pitt plans to double down on fundamentals. The playbook is more likely to contract than expand regardless of whether DiNucci or Browne get the call on Saturday.

“We’ve got a pretty lengthy playbook, and every week you pick stuff that you like, but it comes down to execution, so the more stuff you throw in, it’s like playing flag football, if you’ve got 10 things on your wristband and you’re bad at all of them, it’s not very good,” Narduzzi said. “So more is not always better. It’s quality of what you have.”

And that quality needs to improve across the board for Pitt. The running game, which has been the most consistent aspect of Narduzzi’s teams since he took over nearly three years ago, is also struggling. Falling behind in games has been part of the problem. So has a lack of cohesion by an offensive line that was supposed to be dominant.

“We’ve got to knock some people off the ball,” Narduzzi said.

The Owls aren’t ones to be pushed around. They’re currently 10th in the country in sacks and face an offense that is allowing the quarterback to be taken down more than three times a game.

“When you have a guy like Brian Womac and Graysen Schantz that can rush the passer and Zach Abercrumbia in the middle, we’ve really done great with some four-man pressures this year,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “I like the way that the defensive line has played.”

Some things to look in just the third all-time meeting between the two programs.

WHICH WEAH?: Pitt wide receiver Jester Weah has the size and speed to be the vertical threat the Panthers desperately need in the passing game. Yet Weah has just eight receptions through four games, and his longest grab is all of 21 yards.

“Jester is hard on himself,” Narduzzi said. “He cares, and just seeing some different things, it’s probably frustrated him and he needs to get out of that and play loose and go, and we’ll address that again this week.”

QB ONE … OR TWO?: Narduzzi won’t unveil the starting quarterback until the Panthers take the field. Regardless, it seems likely that both Browne and DiNucci could play. The Panthers have used two quarterbacks in each of the last three games.

SPECIAL DELIVERY: The Owls, who had to briefly relocate to TCU while Houston dealt with Harvey’s aftermath, received thousands of diapers as part of a drive during last week’s home game against FIU, with more collections planned as the city tries to rebuild.

FIRST TO 20 WINS? Pitt’s offense isn’t the only one still trying to find an identity. The Owls are averaging just 12 points a game, tied for 125th in the country. Rice’s problems crystallized last against FIU. The Owls had the ball inside the FIU 10 in the final seconds with a chance to win the game only to come up short.

“We’ve got execution errors up front,” Bailiff said. “We have execution errors with the running backs (and) receivers. We’re looking at everything that we’re doing in practice to ensure that we’re getting the execution that we need.”

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More AP college football: https://collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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