Rhode Island left Acrisure Stadium as 21-point losers, but as the Rams racked up 24 points against Pitt’s defense, Calijah Kancey felt like it was a bit of a dirty win.
It wasn’t dirty in the sense that the game wasn’t played cleanly, it was dirty in the sense that Kancey feels like Pitt has a lot to clean up after giving Rhode Island’s offense some leeway. It comes down to being able to rack up sacks, tackles for loss and splash plays to get teams behind the chains early — setting up a big third down.
“I think we’ve got a lot of stuff to clean up,” Kancey said following Saturday’s game. “No game is perfect, and I don’t think we are at the full potential we are right about now, but we are playing good football.”
Pitt’s defense has been hit by the injury bug this season, with Habakkuk Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre, Dayon Hayes, Nate Temple, Devin Danielson, Brandon George, Marquis Williams and Rashad Battle all missing time through four games this season, but the defense has performed admirably in the face of adversity.
Despite just a half sack from Baldonado, last season’s leading sack artist, Pitt is still 19th in college football in sacks this season. And that production has come from some unlikely sources at times as Solomon DeShields, Nahki Johnson and Sean FitzSimmons all have a sack this season.
SirVocea Dennis (three sacks) and Kancey (two sacks) lead the team so far this season, and when combined with John Morgan, the trio has racked up six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.
Kancey, Pitt’s lone preseason All-American honoree, hasn’t had the massive highlight game or sky-high stats, but he’s consistently been Pitt’s anchor at the point of attack on the defensive line. With 14 tackles (seven solo), four tackles for loss and two sacks, he’s been the most impactful defensive lineman on the roster.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kancey has played 178 of 259 defensive snaps this season, and he’s graded out as Pitt’s highest-rated defender — especially when rushing the passer.
Among defenders with at least 99 pass rush snaps, Kancey’s 87.9 rating is eighth-best in college football and third best among interior defensive linemen. 143 of Kancey’s snaps have come lined up as a defensive tackle, 25 have come lined up as a nose tackle, three have come lined up over an offensive tackle and six have come on the edge.
Kancey has generated 13 quarterback pressures, been credited with three sacks by PFF, a quarterback hit and nine hurries. With an 18.4-win percentage against blocking, Kancey has consistently beaten opposing blockers.
And in run defense, Kancey has recorded nine tackles (eight solo) and hasn’t missed a single tackle. He’s also stopped five run plays, recording a 7.2% stop rate when lining up to defend the run.
It’s been a strong, somewhat underrated start to the season for Kancey, but he’s made his presence felt on a defensive line that has had to use its vast depth to fill the gaps around him. With a healthy defense entering ACC play, Baldonado, Alexandre, Hayes and Danielson finally rounding back into game form, Kancey’s impact should be felt at a level that stands out when watching Pitt’s defense.
Kancey’s sometimes undervalued impact hasn’t stopped him from pointing the finger at himself and his unit and demanding better. It’s something that — even in a win — Pat Narduzzi himself preaches to the entire team. Sometimes a little too vigorously.
“Sometimes guys get a false sense — and they hear it from me all the time,” Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “As a matter of fact, I had to apologize last night for being a grumpy winner because it’s like they all count as one, and we should celebrate them all, to be honest with you.
“And I do a crappy job at celebrating victories sometimes because you want it to be perfect. Like I told you guys, I told our guy’s last night, I think you can play up here. When you don’t, it’s disappointing. But it doesn’t take from the win or what our kids did on the field. Whether you’re underhanded personnel-wise or not we still want to get the same thing out of them.”
Baldonado, Alexandre, Hayes, Temple and Danielson did not play against Rhode Island. That’s a lot of top-tier defensive line talent. And while Kancey himself racked up a sack and a half against the Rams, Nahki Johnson and Sean FitzSimmons both recorded their first career sacks in increased roles on the defensive line.
It’s a defensive line unit that hasn’t quite hit the levels expected of it, in terms of sack totals and tackles for loss, but it’s also a unit that has featured a lot of injuries, played the No. 1 and 18 (total offense) and No. 4 and 14 (scoring offense) in Tennessee and West Virginia this season and received youthful contributions.
There’s an expectation for more. From the coaching staff and the players. And especially from Kancey himself. The defensive line has been tested by injuries, but as ACC play rolls around, there’s an expectation to rise to the challenge with an added level of ferocity.
The defensive line is as deep and talented as any unit on the roster, and while the usual results haven’t quite been seen, it’s hard to believe that Kancey, Baldonado, Morgan and Alexandre would accept anything less from themselves or the Pitt defense entering conference play.