PITTSBURGH —There was only one thing going through Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis’ head as he strode unopposed to the north end zone, poised to score a dagger of a defensive touchdown that would put Pitt up two scores against Clemson:
Dennis was attempting to secure his first career touchdown after intercepting a D.J. Uiagalelei shovel pass and racing 50 yards largely untouched, into the waiting roar of a throng of Pitt students lining the north end zone and give the Panthers a commanding lead over ACC bullies Clemson.
But a slip-up — literally and figuratively — in training camp, had Dennis focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
“During fall camp, I had a pick and I was running, I was close to the touchdown, and I fell,” he said after the game. “I was like, man, if I ever get this chance again in Heinz Field, I know not to fall. Just running all alone, I’m like ‘Please don’t fall, please don’t fall,’ the whole time.”
Dennis didn’t have to do a lot of thinking on the play, either. He rushed the A gap to blitz and suddenly found the ball in his chest as he made a move to face Uiagalelei.
“Wasn’t even a read, it was a blitz,” said head coach Pat Narduzzi. “He popped right in there. I don’t think the quarterback saw him.”
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“I was just at the right place in the right time,” Dennis said. “It was a great play call by Coach Bates. That play put me in that position, in that spot.”
That’s a spot that Dennis has been in before. He started the season at middle linebacker, moving inside from the Money strong-side outside linebacker spot he mostly played as a freshman in 2020. Against Tennessee earlier this season, Pitt and Dennis were beaten on a few shovel passes, and that was something the team looked to clean up in practices since then.
“Every week, we go through plays that we have trouble with defending,” Dennis said. “That was actually a play I missed against Tennessee a couple of times. Just being able to make that play very well this time, it just felt good.”
That kind of growth is what Dennis’ whole presence at Pitt is all about. Dennis primarily played quarterback in high school, then tore his Achilles tendon in his senior season. He went to The Peddie School in New Jersey for a postgraduate year where he first got started playing linebacker, and was set to attend Air Force before a medical condition disqualified him.
A two-star prospect, Dennis was still available late in the process for the Class of 2020, when Narduzzi went to New Jersey to recruit Peddie’s underclassmen and ended up being struck by Dennis instead.
“We weren’t really looking for him,” Narduzzi said in 2019. “I think he’s a diamond in the rough. … This kid has fallen through the cracks.”
Dennis took the opportunity and ran with it. He did the same thing in 2020, when an injury to Wendell Davis shifted Chase Pine to the middle linebacker and provided and opportunity for Dennis outside. He responded by racking up 55 tackles, 14 for a loss, and four sacks in a breakout season.
“Perseverance,” he said when asked what led him from where he was to where he is. “Everybody goes through ups and downs. You’ve just got to fight through it. I believe my journey to get here was just that, just fighting through everything I could and believing in myself to be where I am today.”
Opportunity, and being in the right place at the right time. That was enough for Dennis, the No. 3,130 overall recruit in the Class of 2019 according to 247 Sports, to ruin the evening of Uiagalelei, the No. 10 recruit in the nation a year later.
After Dennis’ interception, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney benched Uiagalelei in favor of Taisun Phommachanh, the No. 216 player and No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in 2019. Neither player was able to break through against the Pitt defense.
“I would say when SirVocea intercepted that shovel pass for a touchdown, there was a little momentum there,” Narduzzi said when asked about a turning point in the game, which started with Pitt in a 7-0 hole, but ended with the Tigers unable to mount a comeback at a two-score lead. “A big-time play. Put their quarterback on the bench. That was a turning point.”
That’s the story of the Panthers, who were out-talented (at least according to those that rate incoming college prospects) at every position on the field on Saturday, but were able to come away with a win with surprisingly little drama against the well-equipped but struggling Tigers.
Persevere through adversity, learn from your mistakes, be in the right place at the right time.The Panthers seem to be there, with a two-game lead in the Coastal Division and an ACC that seems ripe for the taking with the unseating of longtime winners Clemson competed on Saturday.
Just don’t fall.