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Five Takeaways: Pitt Has Found Its Defensive Strength

PITTSBURGH — It took six games, but Pitt finally found the strength of its defense.

Defensive tackles Shakir Soto and Tyrique Jarrett plugged up the middle so effectively against Georgia Tech in Pitt’s 37-34 victory at Heinz Field Saturday that the Yellow Jackets were forced out of their flexbone triple option and into more traditional running plays at times.

When Georgia Tech went for it on 4th and 1 in their own territory late in the fourth quarter, it was Jarrett that came up with the big stop of fullback Dedrick Mills.

(Photo credit: David Hague)

(Photo credit: David Hague)

“That 4th-and-1 stop at the end was huge,” said head coach Pat Narduzzi. “To go for it in their own territory was a gutsy call on their part. Tyrique Jarrett, Shakir Soto and Matt Galambos made a play. Matt checked the defensive call based on something he saw on tape and he made the call and our two defensive tackles did a heck of a job. Tyrique can be a beast.”

Jarrett said that the play called was for a stunt to the “B” gap between the guard and the tackle, but the offensive line came out in a tightly bunched formation, which suggested a sneak or a dive.

“It became just a shoot the gap,” Jarrett said. “He happened to guess right. It was perfect.”

(Photo credit: David Hague)

(Photo credit: David Hague)

In total, Mills ran for just 57 yards despite 15 carries and the Panthers were able to keep the interior portion of the triple option in check. That went a long way toward being able to contain the rest of the offense.

“When you stop the dive, the only two options are the quarterback and the pitch,” Soto said. “We did a really good job. The quarterback only really had one run. I chased him down a couple times on the back side. … Once you stop the dive, it’s hard for a triple option team.”

Soto finished with a team-high eight tackles, with two for a loss, while Jarrett had four tackles. The performance was one of Soto’s best of his four-year career.

(Photo credit: David Hague)

(Photo credit: David Hague)

“This game is all about doing your job and making plays,” Soto said. “The reason I made plays was i was going my job; doing what coaches told us to do. I was in position where I could make plays.”

“It’s just a mentality,” said Jarrett. “As a defensive line, our core right now, that’s something that we have and something that we cherish. It’s a mentality and it’s a mindset that we all carry. It’s just swagger.”

PILING ON

Pitt’s beleaguered secondary got one player back Saturday as Jordan Whitehead returned from his one-week still-unexplained absence. Whitehead was solid, making six tackles, but the unit suffered a blow late in the first half, when Avonte Maddox left the field with an arm injury and did not return.

(Photo credit: David Hague)

(Photo credit: David Hague)

Dane Jackson replaced Maddox, but it was more of the same results from the secondary, who gave up several big plays.

Lewis was beaten on a jump ball in the end zone and he and Terrish Webb miscommunicated and left a man wide open for a big play late in the second quarter. Jackson gave up a 27-yard passing play on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter, even after taking a defensive pass interference penalty.

Maddox looked to be in severe pain and didn’t even return to the sideline for the second half. I would expect him to miss several weeks. Jackson has the tools to step up into a bigger role, but it’ll be a trial by fire for the redshirt freshman.

(Photo credit: David Hague)

(Photo credit: David Hague)

Narduzzi said last week that freshman Damar Hamlin still was not where he needed to be football-wise to make an impact on the field. Hamlin missed all of training camp and the first four weeks of the season with a lingering undisclosed injury. Having missed so much time, if Hamlin is unable to contribute in seven days against Virginia, he seems likely to wear a redshirt this year.

STOPPIN’ THE OPTION

The Panthers gave up a total of 241 yards rushing against Georgia Tech. Against most teams, that wouldn’t be much to celebrate, but the Yellow Jackets averaged 256.8 yards per game on the ground coming into the game.

In the two previous games against the flexbone offense under Narduzzi, the Panthers gave up 376 yards on the ground to Georgia Tech a year ago and 417 yards rushing to Navy in the Military Bowl.

“The defense played well all day (against the option),” Narduzzi said. “If you look at where we’ve come the couple few years, the last three triple option team’s we’ve faced, we’ve gotten better. I think we’ll continue to get better.”

CLUTCH KICKING

Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt secured the win with a 31-yard, last-second field goal that struck the right upright on its way in, but there are no style points in field goal kicking.

Blewitt went 3 for 3 on the afternoon, also making 41- and 34-yard tries. With his second kick, he became Pitt’s all-time leader in career field goals made. Blewitt now has 52 and surpassed the previous record of 50, set by Conor Lee in 2008.

(Photo credit: David Hague)

(Photo credit: David Hague)

Blewitt barely got the kick off, as it was a high snap that holder Ryan Winslow had to corral. He was roughed on the play, so even if the kick hadn’t gone it, he would have had another chance. He didn’t even know it had gone in, as he was still laying on the grass when it hit the upright. The crowd reaction was his first clue.

“It all happened so quickly,” Blewitt said. “You can see some things, but there are some things that happen too quickly. I didn’t notice the snap because Ryan [Winslow] is really good at getting it down and Pat [Quirin] is so consistent. It is just a blessing having them there. It is automatic.”

LONG GRAB

Pitt hasn’t had a lot of downfield passes this season, but Nate Peterman connected with Scott Orndoff for a 74-yard score in the fourth quarter.

It almost didn’t happen, as Georgia Tech defensive back Corey Griffin tipped the pass right before it got to the big Pitt tight end, but he was still able to make the catch and rumble into the end zone to tie the game.

“Even now, I’m still in awe of it all,” Peterman said after the game. “I saw the play kind of late. Initially, he was covered, the guy dropped off him and I had already moved on in my progression. … We’ve been on the bad end of these, to be on the good end is such and assume feeling. I’m just so proud of our team.”

(Photo credit: David Hague)

(Photo credit: David Hague)

BIG GUY GRAB

Tackle Brian O’Neill did some rumbling of his own on a 24-yard lateral in the first half for a touchdown. Here’s what O’Neill had to say about his big play.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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