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How Did the Pitt Defense Win All 3 Spring Scrimmages? It Forced Turnovers



Steph Hall wasn’t able to pick it off himself, but as he shadowed Bub Mean’s deep post route, keeping Means from hauling in a deep pass from Phil Jurkovec with perfect timing, he made a play.

He was just one of many defenders who made a play during Saturday’s spring game, which did just enough to squeeze out a 33-32 win over the offense — the third defensive win of the spring on the biggest stage, no less.

14 players either recorded a half sack or tackle for loss, but it was the turnovers that turned the tide Saturday.

P.J. O’Brien picked off Ty Dieffenbach early in the fourth quarter, reading the young quarterback the whole way as he jumped Jake McConnachie’s route and ran it back 50 yards for a touchdown. That was 12 points alone.

And when BJ Williams and Jake Frantl botched a snap exchange later in the quarter, Jimmy Scott was there to pounce on it. Five more points. If there was a 50/50 ball, Pitt was there. Either to break it up or take it away.

Randy Bates’ defense works turnovers every practice. “You win football games by getting turnovers,” Bates said following the spring game. I mean, the defense as a whole — split into smaller groupings based on positions — rotates through the exact same drills designed around forcing and recovering turnovers.

“We obviously stress it — and sometimes it doesn’t happen — but as we went back and studied last fall, the thing we felt was the biggest problem was that we had a lot of 50/50 fumbles and interceptions that we didn’t get,” Bates said. “The ball hit the ground, we didn’t get on it and they did, or we were reaching for the ball, and nobody got it. So, you’ve gotta get more of those, and that’s been the plan.”

And despite the two turnovers Saturday, Pat Narduzzi is still looking for much more. Especially when taking into account how those turnovers came about.

“We didn’t get the turnovers on the defense like we’d like,” Narduzzi said after the spring game. “We had the fumbled snap with someone who hasn’t taken a lot of snaps under center, so I almost said forget that, the turnover doesn’t count.”

And even with O’Brien’s interception, Narduzzi said he’d bust his chops about picking off a freshman quarterback and not Jurkovec or Christian Veilleux.

Regardless of how the turnovers came about, the spring game still put the cherry on top of a very, very successful spring for the defense. There were tons of tackles for loss and sacks, a lot of turnovers (more ‘takeaway’ stickers than I can count) and certainly a lot of celebration over the last month.

The coaching staff, obviously, wants it to carry over into next season. The 2022 season (a season in which Pitt ranked amongst the best in the conference with 22 turnovers forced) was successful in that regard, but Bates saw where his defense wasn’t able to fully take advantage of its opportunities.

Erick Hallett (three interceptions and three fumble recoveries) and Brandon Hill (a fumble recovery) will not be around next season, but as Pitt has done almost every season, the emphasis is on reloading, not rebuilding.

Javon McIntyre got a crack at it to end the 2022 season, recording interceptions against Miami and UCLA, and O’Brien has made his mark over the course of the spring. Hall and Donovan McMillon are firmly in the mix, too.

It really helps to have Marquis Williams, M.J. Devonshire and A.J. Woods (a trio that combined for six interceptions and four defensive touchdowns) back, too.

SirVocea Dennis and Tylar Wiltz both recorded interceptions last season, amongst many, many other contributions, but the ultra-athletic Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields return on the outside, and Shayne Simon and Brandon George fill that hole in the middle of the defense.

I don’t know if any linebacker had more ‘takeaway’ stickers than Nick Lapi’s four either.

The defensive line, despite its own losses to the NFL, is just as impactful as ever. I don’t know how, but Charlie Partridge has put together a unit that feels ready to once again pace the NCAA in tackles for loss and sacks.

Pitt’s defense works best when the defensive line and defensive backs work in tandem, and despite the youth, the defense is in good hands. This spring has proven it.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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