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Brandon Hill’s Game-Changing Performance Against Duke Highlights Quietly Successful Season

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David Green expected a pass, so he lined up a bit wider than usual, just off the outside shoulder of Duke’s left guard on a 1st-and-10 play early in the fourth quarter.

Pitt held a 20-14 lead as the fourth quarter kicked off, but with a trend of fourth quarter troubles in the month of October and an offense that failed to produce throughout the third quarter, a defensive stop would’ve been welcomed.

So, as Duke’s Jordan Waters received a handoff from Riley Leonard, carrying to the right side of the offensive line, Green fended off Chance Lytle, cut back over the top toward where the play was developing and popped Waters as he emerged from a hole.

“I didn’t even know the ball came out,” Green said after the win Saturday. “I just heard, ‘Ball!’ And then I saw Brandon Hill running down the sideline, and I tried to get a block in real quick.”

The ball bounced across the grass a couple of times before Hill scooped it up, switching seamlessly from a centerfielder to a shortstop, and he had the Acrisure Stadium logo in his sights. He was pursuing the football like defensive coordinator Randy Bates has taught.

“And then David Green hit the ball, and I saw it, and we always practice scoop and score during practice, so I just remember we do in practice, and I saw my blockers on the sideline, and just got in the end zone,” Hill said following the win Saturday. 

Hill followed an envoy of blockers back to the end zone, returning the fumble 30 yards for what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown over Duke Saturday.

It was Pitt’s fifth defensive touchdown of the season, 10th since the start of the 2021 season, and that success is the result of excellent preparation week in and week out from the defensive staff.

And, of course, it’s the actual performance of the defense on the field. A unit that’s grown into a more and more complete unit by the week.

“It just shows who we are, what type of defense we are and that it’s finally clicking this season,” Hill said. “I’m just happy to be a part of it and happy to let you guys got to see it.”

It hasn’t been Hill who has been in the spotlight defensively this season, even in the secondary as his “right-hand man” Erick Hallett has put together a breakout season, but he’s quietly put together a season in which he’s second on the squad in tackles and continued to grow in coverage — while providing a heavy presence as a big hitter.

Hill has racked up 64 tackles (36 solo), a half tackle for loss, two pass breakups and a returned fumble for a touchdown this season. He hasn’t been targeted directly by opposing quarterbacks all that often this season, but he was responsible for two big pass breakups against Duke.

“(The two pass breakups) just boosted my confidence because it’s probably the most action I’ve got all year, so just to finally be able to showcase my talent and just make plays,” Hill said. “I play with a great group of guys on defense.”

With players like Erick Hallett, M.J. Devonshire and Marquis Williams lined up alongside him in the secondary, and players like Calijah Kancey and SirVocea Dennis getting after opposing quarterbacks, it’s only helped his comfort level as he plays a high-risk brand of football from the secondary.

And in clinching a win over Duke with a defensive touchdown, then sniffing out a potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt with under a minute remaining in the game, he couldn’t have been more proud of himself and the defense as a whole.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Brandon Hill (9) November 19, 2022 David Hague/PSN

“It makes me overly proud because I know how much work the guys, my fellow teammates, have put in day in and day out,” Hill said. “To finally see it clicking and doing well together, it’s an amazing feeling.”

It’s taken some time, and it hasn’t always been helped by offensive inconsistency, but Pitt’s defense has risen to the challenge on a weekly basis. With just 313.7 yards allowed per game, Pitt is No. 16 in total defense, No. 3 in sacks, No. 37 in tackles for loss and No. 8 in run defense in college football.

And when it comes to turnovers, while Pitt has only forced 14 (84th in college football), Pitt’s five defensive touchdowns are second in college football. And according to Hill, it comes down to Bates’ harping on creating game-changing defensive opportunities.

“Playing this game, it’s a great feeling,” Hill said. “You always want to make the play, you always want to have fun in making those plays, it’s fun and you can see it out there.

“As soon as Erick makes a play, I’m on his hat, I’m cheering up. If SirVocea is in the backfield, I’m coming from 20 yards back to celebrate with him.

“The game of football is fun.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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