PITTSBURGH — Don’t look now, but Pitt’s defense has gone from what held the Panthers back a year ago to the strength of the team in 2017.
Despite missing three starters in Keyshon Camp, Dewayne Hendrix and Avonte Maddox, Pitt held Virginia to 14 points and 314 total yards in a 31-14 victory on Saturday.
Not only did the Panthers have a good day statistically on the defensive side of the ball, they made big plays throughout to stop drives and gain momentum.
In the early going, it was linebacker Saleem Brightwell that came through with a big pick that set up Pitt’s first score. The defensive line came through with three sacks and helped hold Virginia to 1 for 5 on fourth downs.
In the backfield, Dane Jackson stepped up to knock away a pass on one of those fourth downs and Phillipie Motley, starting in place of Maddox, broke up a pass on Virginia’s final offensive play.
Pitt’s defensive performance came while playing just one senior — defensive end Allen Edwards — and two true freshmen — corners Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock. The depth that the team has built, particularly along the line and in the secondary, has been a big part of the change in fortune for Pitt’s defense this season.
“We’ve played a lot of guys and that’s helped us,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Dewayne probably could have gone today, but it was going to help us even more now if we didn’t have to go out there and beat him up. Now, he’s got another week and a half off just to get even fresher. It was nice to go out there and get a win without two of your D-line starter and your starting corner. That just goes with the depth that we’ve got out there.”
The Panthers are certainly aware of the change in fortunate, and despite the team’s record now sitting at 4-5, the two straight wins against conference teams and two straight solid performances has them feeling good.
“Without a doubt,” defensive tackle Shane Roy said. “If you look at the past couple of weeks, our defense has been playing lights out, I think. The energy, and just the vibe at practice, people aren’t upset to go to practice. They’re having fun in practice, they’re having fun in the games. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Pitt’s defensive line, in particular, responded to the challenge of playing without two of its regulars. The Panthers held the Cavaliers to 102 yards rushing and Pitt’s line sacked Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert three times, nearly doubling their sack total for the season.
“We were laughing, the play where we got our back-to-back sacks, we doubled our sack total in one series,” Rashad Weaver said, regarding his and Shane Roy’s third-quarter sacks.
Roy said that it’s been a matter of getting the younger players accustomed to executing in the base defense, which has allowed defensive line coach Charlie Partridge to add on to the game plan.
“I think we were probably the most prepared for this game,” he said. “We really figured out their o-line. … We studied them really well. We figured out what moves we could use against them and we just practiced them all week, relentlessly. We practiced them every period.”
“We’re not at the top of our game, we’re still learning new stuff every week and he’s still teaching us new stuff every week. Starting out, you’re not ready to learn everything. We had a good week of practice and he just knew and we knew that if we played how we practiced that whole week, that it was going to show.”
Quadree Henderson is as fast as they come in college football, but the thing that he’s learned the most thus far in 2017 in patience.
It hasn’t necessarily been patience as a runner — Henderson has plenty of that. It was mostly about being patient for his opportunities. With opposing teams keying on the jet sweep and attempting to take Henderson out of the game, the rest of Pitt’s offense had to step up and get things done without him.
That’s finally happened the last two weeks, with the running game clicking against Duke and Virginia. But that hasn’t made it easier to wait his turn.
But regardless of how many opportunities he gets on offense, Henderson knows he’ll get some chances each game to make an impact on special teams. He did just that against Virginia, taking a second-quarter punt 75 yards to the house to give Pitt a big lead and a ton of momentum.
“That’s a big-time play,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We’ve been waiting for that. You guys know what he’s all about. He had a nice game, he had a nice little run, too.”
Henderson did have one carry, a 25-yard scamper around right end. While he’s not getting the same volume of work he did a year ago, he’s still finding ways to impact games, and that’s what’s important.
“It’s just being patient,” Henderson said. “Being a team player, I’ve just got to let things come to me.”
That’s exactly what happened when Virginia’s rugby-style kick went left while the coverage unit went right and Henderson scampered up the sideline and through traffic for a score.
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Pitt has been developing depth at the cornerback position all season. After starting the year with basically just starters Maddox and Jackson, the Panthers got Motley and Therran Coleman back from injury while Pinnock and Mathis gained experience.
That could be vital going forward. Not only didn’t Maddox play, but Coleman, who missed most of the Duke game, also didn’t see the field and Jackson spent the final drive getting checked out on the trainer’s table.
That might mean a big role for Pinnock and Mathis going forward.
DINUCCI GETS LOOSE
Ben DiNucci is a fairly mobile passer, but Pitt hasn’t taken advantage of that by running him in very many roll-out situations this year. That changed Saturday, when the Panthers repeatedly used a play-action, naked bootleg to get DiNucci in space. He had the option to hit either of his tight ends or run the ball and had a lot of success with that play.
“We had a little bit of sprint-out, but a lot of naked (bootlegs),” Narduzzi said. “They’re flowing with the run. If they’re stopping the run, guys are wheeling out, but he’s just pitching or running with it. It’s a run-pass option on any of those nakeds, so he’s doing a nice job there.
I asked DiNucci specifically about that play and here’s what he had to say: