When Pitt held Tennessee to just 91 yards on the ground this season, which is now more than 100 yards below its season average, there was optimism that Pitt’s run defense suffered some growing pains in allowing West Virginia to run rampant in the season opener.
The run defense allowed just 113 combined yards against Western Michigan and Rhode Island, a more fitting total for a defense that held opponents well below the 100-yard mark per game last season, but then Georgia Tech came to town.
Even with a run-first quarterback in Jeff Sims and Louisville transfer Hassan Hall as a solid duo on the ground, Georgia Tech entered last Saturday’s game with the ACC’s 11th-ranked rushing offense and college football’s 105th-ranked rushing offense. Pitt allowed GT to rack up a season-high 232 yards on 44 carries. There were questions as to the fatigue level of Pitt’s defense, especially late in the game, in being a factor, but Charlie Partridge saw it differently.
“Honestly what was happening was there were some guys that were trying to do more than their job,” Partridge said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “There were guys trying to make a play that wasn’t necessarily their play. There are three or four plays in that final touchdown drive, or the second to last one, where I can see — I’m not going to point guys out and throw them under the bus — but there’s a few guys that went outside their job. And when that starts to happen on defense, no matter what your system is, you’re going to get in trouble, and that’s what got us there in the end.”
Georgia Tech’s second to last drive didn’t result in any points, as Sims’ fourth and goal from the 1-yard line fell incomplete, but it was fueled by runs of 25 and 17 yards from Hall — after starting just beyond the GT 40-yard line. And the final drive took just three plays, a 63-yard scamper from Hall, a broken play loss of eight and an 18-yard rushing touchdown from Sims to put the game on ice.
With Pitt trailing through the entire fourth quarter, falling behind by a couple of scores late in the game, Partridge felt like the anxiety of the situation created a scenario in which some of Pitt’s defenders felt like they have to go out of their way to make splash plays. It wasn’t a lack of effort, it was a lack of staying in one’s own lane.
“We all have our perspectives,” Partridge said. “… And obviously, the vantage point I’m speaking from was the d-line perspective. We had a few guys trying to do a little too much, and that led to some breakdowns.”
It was a tough end to a performance in which Pitt’s defense limited Sims to just 102 yards through the air and limited the rushing attack well — up until the fourth quarter. Partridge said that there are plenty of things to be proud of regarding Saturday’s defensive effort for the first three, three-and-a-half quarters. But there’s got to be a finish, a complete four quarters.
“We all knew it was a game we should’ve won,” Calijah Kancey said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Georgia Tech wanted it more than us, and I think we learned from that. We just didn’t finish. We just didn’t finish as a team.”
Pitt’s defense wasn’t able to stand up to the run well enough and let five potential interceptions literally slip through its hands, but the pressure upfront was stellar. Sims was sacked four times, and Pitt racked up 11 tackles for loss — led by Kancey’s 3.5 tackles for loss and sack.
It’s been a season in which Kancey started off with a level of consistency almost unseen across college football, but he was missing that highlight performance. It’s safe to say he has that now, and he’s operating with more and more double teams every game. Teams are sliding protections to attempt to eliminate Kancey up the middle, doubling him on run plays and game-planning ways to take him out of the play.
“Me, myself, I’ve gotta work on beating double teams more,” Kancey said. “I know I’m gonna have more attention, and that just frees up the other guys on the defensive line. If someone gets a 1-on-1, I know they’re gonna win.
“I know if my teammate gets a 1-on-1, he’s gonna win. And if I get the double team, I’m gonna fight to win.”
Kancey has racked up 19 tackles (10 solo), 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks through five games this season, grading out as not just one of the best defensive linemen but the best defenders in college football this season. And as he’s dealing with double teams, it’s opening opportunities for players like Habakkuk Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre and John Morgan on the edge and David Green and Devin Danielson inside.
Pitt’s 16 sacks lead the ACC, with three from Kancey, three from SirVocea Dennis, 2.5 from David Green, two from Solomon DeShields, one each from Bangally Kamara, John Morgan, Nahki Johnson, Sean FitzSimmons and Brandon George. And just a half-sack from last season’s leading sack artist Haba Baldonado.
It’s been a difficult season for Baldonado, who has missed a game and a half to injury this season, but despite his lack of on-field statistics this season, Partridge has seen how his star edge rusher has handled his business like a professional in every sense. Partridge has also seen how Baldonado has produced, but the sack numbers that he and Baldonado himself would like to see just haven’t translated yet.
And in the face of adversity, the sacks and tackles for loss not accumulating as injuries have mounted at times, Baldonado hasn’t tried to force anything or overstep his assignments. He’s one of the players that’s stayed in his lane and fulfilled his role in the defense. Baldonado cares immensely, and that leadership factor is invaluable going forward.
“We’re all adults standing here, the more you invest in something, the more it means to you,” Partridge said. “So, in those moments you’re gonna speak up, and Haba is fully invested. The time that he’s put in, the time that continues to put in, so when things aren’t going exactly the way we want, he speaks up on behalf of the group and really does a great job of being a strong leader — not worrying if someone likes what he says, he doesn’t care. He’s gonna say what needs to be said, and if they like him, they’ll like him down the road.”
Baldonado corrects what needs to be corrected, even before Partridge does sometimes, and he does it with passion. It’s helped to continue the legacy of Pitt’s dominant defensive lines. And as he, Alexandre and Dayon Hayes have missed time this season, it’s opened up opportunities for younger players — the future of the position.
“In terms of the silver lining, you got Bam Brima some experience that you can’t get back, which is great,” Partridge said. “Nahki (Johnson), Elliot (Donald) got reps the last series a couple of weeks ago, you’re looking at Dorien Ford, Sam Williams and some guys — that’s experience that will pay off down the road as well.”
When it comes to Brima specifically, someone who used a strong performance in fall camp to carve out a role in Pitt’s defensive end rotation, his experience has come both inside and outside, which is also a path that Baldonado and Alexandre have taken in their respective Pitt careers. With experience inside, having to deal with double teams and extended physicality leads to even more physical play on the edge — and Brima’s experience is pivotal in his development as a player who will be looked upon in the seasons ahead.
But while players like Donald, Johnson, Ford and Brima — to a lesser extent in Brima’s case as he’s taking more snaps this season — are players of the future, the present is here and now. And Pitt’s veteran defensive line, with seniors in Baldonado, Alexandre, Morgan, Green, Danielson and Tyler Bentley, it’s a unit that wants to show up this season.
“I think as a defense we’ve gotta finish,” Kancey, a junior himself, said. “It’s all about finishing, executing, making sure everybody’s in the right place to make a play.
“I think we know as a team that we gotta pick it up. Every game from here on out is a championship game, and we can’t slip up. We’ve gotta finish.”
Pitt has a Virginia Tech offense that is 12th in the ACC in total offense (13th in rushing offense), Pitt is facing another opponent that hasn’t been able to muster much offensively this season. It didn’t go well against a similar opponent in Georgia Tech last weekend, but this weekend is a chance for redemption. And Kancey knows what to do this time.
“I think we’ve just gotta attack,” Kancey said. “Our defense, we make TFLs and sacks, and we’ve just gotta fo a better job of attacking at the line of scrimmage and behind the line of scrimmage.”