PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s defense is good.
If you were paying any attention whatsoever about the team coming into the 2020 season, that should not come as a surprise.
The Panthers shut down Louisville on Saturday, holding Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunningham to 108 yards passing and running back Javian Hawkins to to 78 yards rushing — 75 of which came on one carry — in a 23-20 victory over Cardinals.
Hawkins entered the game averaging 117.5 yards per game. Cunningham averaged 325 passing yards per game. Meanwhile, Pitt sacked Cunningham seven times and intercepted him three more in a dominant and punishing performance.
Then Pitt cornerback Jason Pinnock — the owner of the third and game-deciding interception — called that performance “expected” after the game.
Yeah, they’re good.
While the dominance against the running game has been a hallmark of Pat Narduzzi’s defenses and the sacks line up with the ridiculous amount of talent Pitt has amassed on the defensive line.
But the interceptions? With due respect to Pinnock, those were definitely not expected at this level.
Pinnock’s game-winning pick came on the heels of aerial takeaways by Damar Hamlin and Marquis Williams earlier in the game. Added to Paris Ford’s two from the first two weeks, and Pitt’s defensive backs have five interceptions in three games after finishing a 13-game slate in 2019 with just eight.
“The guys are making plays,” Narduzzi said after the game. “Marquis Williams, we’ve got to teach him a little ball security. He’s trying to point out blockers and stuff and I’m like, ‘Just tuck that ball and run, would you please? You run a 4.5. Go. He might even run a 4.4.’
“But I can’t tell you we’re doing a whole lot different. We’ve got, again, just different checks. We look the same and we have different checks that we make coverage-wise. We’ll call one coverage and then they got a chance to put themselves in position to make plays, and there’s a lot — there’s a lot more mental out there as far as what we do, how we do it, and that’s a key to what we do defensively.”
Pinnock said that they’ve been able to take some risks that they might not normally be able to take on the back end because of how frequently their front four has gotten to the quarterback.
“I think it allows both rooms to be aggressive,” Pinnock said. “Our D line, they trust that we’re going to always take away first read, and we trust that they’re going to get there. So you know, we can undercut routes, we can do things that maybe if you didn’t trust the D line, you couldn’t do. So we play well together.”
The interceptions have come up huge for Pitt so far this season. The Panthers got a field goal from Williams’ interception and Pinnock’s sealed the win on Saturday. Against Syracuse, Ford’s interception turned into a Jared Wayne touchdown reception.
Pitt’s offense has yet to hit its stride through three games, but the Panthers are 3-0 for the first time in a long time thanks to all facets of the team’s defense playing at a high level.
”A FEW PLAYS AWAY”
Pitt’s offense did some good things against the Cardinals, moving the ball with a balanced attack and seven times threatening the Louisville end zone.
But of those seven trips inside the opposing 35-yard line, Pitt was intercepted once, turned the ball over another time and settled for three field goals to go along with two touchdowns.
That’s not what the Panthers are looking for, with Narduzzi specifically saying before the game that he wanted more touchdowns and fewer field goal attempts this week than the team had the week before.
But quarterback Kenny Pickett doesn’t think they’re all that far away, either. Once again, a proliferation of correctable errors impacted Pitt’s ability to sustain drives.
“I think getting behind the sticks early is what hurt us today,” Pickett said. If we can stay ahead of the stick and be more aggressive, that’s we want to be down there. … Try to limit the drops a little bit more and the pre snap penalties are what hurt us today.
“Once we get that squared away, I think, we’ll really take off. It’s just little details right now. We’re just a few plays away.”
Pitt played the game without starting tight end Lucas Krull. Krull has a left knee injury that was serious enough for him to need crutches to get around on the sideline, but Narduzzi said it is “not yet” expected to be a season-ending injury.
Despite that, the seriousness of Krull’s hardware and the fact that his No. 7 uniform on offense has been turned over to wide receiver DJ Turner, suggests a long-term absence at the very least.
Not only were the Panthers were without Krull, backups Kyi Wright and Jake Zilinskas also missed the game.
While those players missed with injury, the Panthers got a boost with the return of Taysir Mack, who had an athletic catch, broken tackle and run for a 40-yard touchdown.
“That’s my guy,” Pickett said. “I’ve been with him through a lot. I was really happy to see him on the practice field this week, and he was running really well. He’s got fresh legs, so, I knew he was gonna have a big game and how to get the ball in his hands.”
With Mack back, to go along with Jordan Addison, Shocky Jacques-Louis, Turner and Jared Wayne, and each of their top three tight ends missing, the Panthers decided to eschew the position somewhat, opening the game in a four-wide receiver set that seemed to keep Louisville off balance.
“We threw it in there a little bit versus Syracuse, and obviously when Lucas and Kyi went down, that was gonna be more of an emphasis this week, just having Jared on the field as well,” Pickett said. “He’s been doing a great job, and now he’s working outside and inside. I think he’s an X factor now that we have him in there.”
The changes did result in decreased production for freshman wide receiver Jaylon Barden, who did not see a target.
BIG PLAYS THAT PAID
The Pitt defense smothered Louisville up and down the field on Saturday, but the few big plays that the Cardinals were able to come up with were able to keep them in the game.
Hawkins’ 75-yard score involved a missed fit, according to Narduzzi, and there was a miscommunication on Cunningham’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Tutu Atwell. A fake punt that took Pitt by surprise contributed to the Cardinals’ second-half field goal.
“I feel like we left some stuff out there on the field,” defensive end Patrick Jones II said. “That one big run, we should not have given that up. We gotta go back and fix that because we can’t we can’t be giving up stuff that like if we want to be the best in the country.”
GROUND AND POUND
Pitt’s offense had a golden chance to finish the game when they got the ball back with just over four minutes remaining in the game and Louisville down to two timeouts.
But the Panthers couldn’t get the four-minute offense into gear, punting after four plays.
“I was hoping to finish we the offense on the field,” Narduzzi said. “But the defense was ready to go.”
Part of the problem was that the offense was limited in its available weapons for that kind of rushing duty. Big redshirt freshman Daniel Carter dressed but did not play after being injured in the Syracuse game. A.J. Davis left with a first-half injury and did not return.
So it was the slight Vincent Davis and inexperienced Israel Abanikanda shouldering the load down the stretch.
Davis finished with 47 yards on 14 carries, while Abanikanda had 41 on nine, but the duo needed one more first down to get over the hump and get the offense to finish out a game on its own.