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Can Virginia’s 3-4 Defense Stop Pitt’s Offense?

PITTSBURGH — When the Pitt scout team started work in preparations for this week’s game against Virginia, all they needed to do was look out the window.

The Pitt scout defense will be mimicking the 3-4 scheme of new Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, and it’s pretty similar to the base look of Pitt’s next-door neighbors, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mendenhall brought his scheme with him from BYU, where it was known as an aggressive, blitzing look with a lot of coverage schemes and a ton of takeaways. It’ll be the first time Pitt has faced a true 3-4 team under second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi.

As with any 3-4 front, the Cavaliers rely heavily on their nose tackle, and Donte Wilkins is a good one. The 6-foot-1, 300-pound senior has 22 tackles through five games. More importantly, he’s able to keep interior blockers from getting to the second level.

“Donte’s play has been consistent from the beginning,” Mendenhall said in his conference call this week. “The moving parts around him have become more coordinated and more effective, but when you’re a 3-4 team, the nose is where everything starts, and without the ability to control that position and the gaps that he’s responsible for, you really can’t have consistency, and because he has been, we’ve been able to focus on the parts around him and getting those more shored up in terms of assignment and execution, and that’s allowed the entire front seven to be playing more effectively than what we were.”

The task of combating Wilkins will fall to the interior linemen of the Panthers, and Narduzzi thinks that group is up to the task..

“Both of our guards, [Alex] Bookser, Dorian Johnson [and center Alex Officer], we have three nose tackles,” Narduzzi said, referencing the size and strength of his linemen. “So it’s three versus one the way I look at it. Those guys are playing pretty good, as well. Because we’re such a good inside-outside zone team, a little bit of power, it really doesn’t change much as far as who they are and where they are up front. I think, again, Wilkins is a good player inside. But I think we got some good players inside that can handle him up front.”

Johnson said the biggest change is in the footwork. When he comes out of his stance for a run block, the man he’s blocking will be in a different place than he’s used to, so the first step will be critical.

“We faced an odd front before this year against Villanova — the 3-3 stack. This is a little different. We’re just trying to work out the kinks,” Johnson said. “We’re used to facing an over/under front. It’s just something to get used to. After two days running it, you get your footing down. You get all your calls down.”

The other place there’s a big difference is in the pass rush. While the three down lineman are usually coming, the fourth rusher in a typical pass rush is one the linebackers. It’s up to Officer and Nate Peterman to determine who is coming and make sure the correct protection is called.

“It’s all starts with communication in terms of AO will tell us what’s going on and we just listen to him and if Nate wants to make any changes,” said right tackle Brian O’Neill. “I just do what I’m told. That’s one thing I’ve learned, to just follow the leaders. The leaders in our pass protection are AO and Nate. … It’s helped that AO’s been a guard and a center. He’s seen it from multiple positions.”

As the play develops, watching for blitzes and extra rushers coming from unexpected spots becomes a priority, and not just for the linemen. Backs and tight ends need to decide who to pick up and whether or not to cut a route short.

“You’re going to have a lot of guys coming. We know they like to pressure, bringing a lot of different blitzes and stuff,” said tight end Scott Orndoff. “We have to make sure we have good eye discipline in pass protection. We have to make sure we’re covering all the ground — guys coming off the edge and up the middle. As long as we pick up a lot of their pressures, we should be OK.”

Giving Peterman time will be of the essence in the passing game, because the aggressive blitzes will leave receivers open down the field. But the Cavaliers like to change coverages to catch quarterbacks asleep while making typical passes. As a result, they’re tied for second in the conference with seven interceptions.

“They give you a lot of different looks, especially on the back end,” Peterman said. “We really have to study a lot of film this week and try to get a bead on them. … They do some things that maybe aren’t typical — that you don’t see week in and week out. Definitely. They’re different.”


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