It wasn’t a great day for Pitt’s defense, giving up 403 yards to a lackluster Virginia Tech offense that racked up just 501 total yards over its last two games, but when Pitt needed a play, John Morgan was there.
Pitt felt its momentum rapidly slipping away, a blocked punt leading to a Virginia Tech touchdown to inch closer following a 15-point deficit to just two points. And after a quick three and out from Pitt’s offense, VT had all the momentum.
Aside from an Erick Hallett interception at the end of the first half, eliminating a Grant Wells’ Hail Mary attempt, Pitt had forced a turnover in a couple of weeks. None against Georgia Tech, none against Rhode Island.
So, with Virginia Tech driving early in the fourth quarter, Wells connecting with his favorite target Kaleb Smith for a 10-yard strike on a 3rd-and-5, it looked like VT was in business again. Until Morgan suddenly appeared over Smith, punched the ball free and Shayne Simon jumped on it.
“But John Morgan, that was a great play by him,” Pat Narduzzi said following the game. “You don’t usually see a 270-pounder hitting a receiver down the field, but obviously it was decent coverage. Should have been a sack on the play. I think Bangally had someone grabbing him around the neck, so there was no call there. Was not happy with that but was obviously happy with John Morgan’s hit on the receiver, and that turnover was big-time.”
It was an impact play that got the ball back in Kedon Slovis’s hands, but more importantly, back into Israel Abanikanda’s hands. Abanikanda would break a 29-yard run on Pitt’s first offensive snap following the forced fumble, took a late hit and then scored a 10-yard touchdown to really Pitt ahead for the final time.
Hallett said it was a really good feeling for the defense, seeing the hard work that has been in during practice — especially over the last couple of weeks — put to use in a big-time moment and help get the offense back on the field.
“It meant a lot,” Hallett said. “I think a lot of the time we go out there and we try to change the momentum. As a defense we’re not necessarily looked at to score, put points on the board necessarily, but we go out there to change momentum and stop them from scoring.
“On a play like that obviously it swings momentum and then you have a player like Izzy, somebody who plays like Izzy and feeds off us, that’s just the product you get.”
While Pitt’s defense had a big emphasis on forcing more turnovers, especially after a two-week drought, but Hallett said he just wanted to be where he was at. Don’t think about last week, the week before that or anything. Just be in the moment.
“Just be where you’re at, you don’t have to go outside of yourself to make a play, it’ll come to you with the defense,” Hallett said.
Hallett said that the defense has made improvements from Week 1 against West Virginia all the way up through Week 6 against Virginia Tech, but there are still aspects of the defense that Narduzzi wants to continue to clean up.
Narduzzi said that the defense was average at times against Virginia Tech, and the way Pitt’s run defense has given up chunk plays this season, it’s uncharted waters for Narduzzi. He isn’t used to it, so he wants to reevaluate going into the bye week. But he did feel like Pitt’s defense adjusted well at the half.
“I think we made some great halftime adjustments,” Narduzzi said. “We sat in there and looked at what we were doing, what they were doing. Again, they do a good job in their run game. Coach Rudolph I think is probably the run game coordinator and does a nice job, but there’s just no — I don’t like that. I don’t like anybody running the football on us. If you want to throw it, throw it, but don’t let them be two-dimensional.
“We let them run it in the first half. Second half, I don’t know what they had yardage-wise, but we pretty much shut it down in the second half, but they can’t do it in the first half.”
With a week off now before traveling to Louisville to continue ACC play, Pitt has plenty of areas to clean up. The run defense is an area that will continue to be refined, but the entire unit is one that will continue to look for impact, momentum-changing plays.