PITTSBURGH – Even with a 1-2 start to the 2019 season, there has been a lot to like about Pitt football. While the offense is starting to find success under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, the defense has been stout all season under second-year defensive coordinator Randy Bates and head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Now the Panthers welcome the Central Florida Knights and their sixth-ranked scoring offense to Heinz Field, led by freshman phenom Dillon Gabriel. Gabriel has started just two games for the Knights, but he already has nine touchdowns through the air and one on the ground.
“They’ve got a freshman quarterback in Gabriel that he’s, again, a true freshman from Hawai’i and looks like Milton a lot, reminds you of him,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Haven’t seen him live, but he throws a deep ball. He comes from the Rainbow State. I don’t know if they call it the Rainbow State, but he throws some rainbows up there. He’s a great deep ball thrower.”
Facing talented quarterbacks is nothing new for the Pitt defense, as they have already played three dynamic quarterbacks this season and had success against each one.
Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins accounted for just 225 yards total against the Panthers. Perkins averaged 277 total yards a game last season. Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke was named the MAC Preseason Player of the Year, but the Panthers sacked him six times. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was leading an electric offense against Idaho and Buffalo, but he completed just 46.7% of his passes against Pitt last week.
A large part of their success has been a result of a ferocious pass rush led by sophomore Jaylen Twyman. Twyman is tied for fifth in the nation with four and a half sacks. The Panthers have 12 sacks as a team, tying them for the ninth most in the country. The defensive line’s success is even more impressive considering they lost juniors Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp for the season.
Pitt’s secondary has also been great, living up to their lofty preseason expectations. Junior cornerback Demarri Mathis tied for the national lead in pass breakups with five. Sophomore safety Paris Ford has turned heads through the first quarter of the season with his energetic play, and he nearly nabbed his first career interception against Penn State. Damar Hamlin, Dane Jackson and Jason Pinnock have also been steady.
The key for the Panthers on Saturday will be eliminating explosive plays, which they struggled to do against Penn State. Pitt allowed plays of 85, 53 and 40 yards, which proved to be the difference in the game. UCF has 21 offensive touchdowns and average 604 yards per game.
“They’re explosive, and there’s a reason they’ve won,” Narduzzi said. “They’re sitting in a hotbed of players down in the state of Florida. For all those voters out there, it’s no fluke.”
Narduzzi is confident that his defense can improve going forward, building off their performance against Penn State.
“I have a lot of faith in our defense,” he said. “When you look at just overall, when you hold an explosive offense, which they’ve shown to be — we’ll see how that continues to go throughout the season. You hold an explosive offense to 17 points, there’s some good things there.”
Still, slowing UCF down will be easier said than done, as the Knights have scored 30 or more points in 29 straight games.
Pitt’s defense will have to do two things on Saturday to slow down UCF’s explosive attack: First, the defensive line will have to get penetration and disrupt the Knights’ effective zone blocking scheme. Second, the secondary will have to lock up UCF’s receivers down the field and generate turnovers, which the Panthers have yet to do this season.
If the Panthers are able to flex their muscles and play their game against an offense as potent as the Knights’, they will be able to show that this defense is the real deal.