PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s 45-31 win over Virginia was an important one for the team, as the Panthers try to crawl back into the race in the ACC Coastal Division.
But the performance — particularly in the second half — of the secondary, could be an even bigger result for the team.
With the Cavaliers trailing by a touchdown at the half, the Pitt defensive backs locked down the passing attack. Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert went 7 for 20 for 93 yards in the second half. Even more impressive was that the Panthers did it without the services of cornerback Avonte Maddox (elbow) and safety Terrish Webb (undisclosed).
Senior Reggie Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Phillipie Motley stepped into bigger roles, and that can be a building block to carry that strong half of play into something more, according to head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“No question about it,” Narduzzi said during his ACC conference call on Wednesday. “To be able to it without T-Webb in the second half and Avonte for the entire game, it gave Phillipie Motley a ton of success, a ton of confidence, and gave the coaches confidence in what Phillipie can do and what Dane Jackson [did] the week before.
“There’s some good competition going on there, and we’ve got really four or five corners that can go out there. There’s no first round corner out there right now, but we’ve got a lot of guys that can go out and make plays if they do things and pay attention to details.”
Narduzzi said after the game that Motley had beaten out Dane Jackson for the chance to fill in for Maddox with a strong week of practice. Motley said the competitive mindset of the players in the secondary has made every practice like that.
“It was a normal week,” Motley said. “All we do is compete with each other. That’s how you make each other better. Our whole year, basically since the spring started, that’s been our biggest thing is always competing.”
Motley thought he played well, but admitted he had some nerves going into the film room to dissect his own performance for the first time.
“You have an idea in your head of what you did on the field, but until you go watch the film, you don’t exactly know everything that you did: what you did well and what you did badly,” he said. “
There’s always some things to clean up, but I think I competed well. There was no big pass plays, so that was good to see.”
“Phillipie balled out,” senior safety Reggie Mitchell said. “He stepped up to the plate and did everything he had to do and more. I’m just so happy for him because that’s a kid that worked really hard ever since he got here. He’s been competing to start and get into that position, so I’m glad he came in and followed through.”
Not only did Motley play well, he did it at a different position than he’s used to, as well. Pitt plays their corners to the field or wide side of the formation and to the boundary or short side. Motley had been on the boundary side, backing up Ryan Lewis, to this point this season, but flipped over to the field to make his first career start.
“In the field, [the receivers] have more space, so you get different routes. It’s not like it’s completely different,” he said. “You have a lot of the same rules. We practice both sides, so it’s not like I had never done it before. It’s pretty easy at this point because we practice both sides so much.”
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for Motley, who saw his good friend and roommate Maddox go down two weeks ago, but then had his friend’s setback provide him with his own opportunity.
“When I saw him holding his arm, I had no idea what [had] happened. Obviously, I was sad for him,” Motley said. “Avonte is the smallest guy on our defense, but he has one of the biggest hearts. It was kind of sad to see him get hurt, but as they say, if one of our guys goes down, [it’s] next man up.”
Motley said Maddox is still in high spirits despite his injury.
“He’s still the same Avonte: a loud, funny guy,” Motley said. He’s still the same. He’s never going to change.”