Dayon Hayes was shocked. He figured that he’d pick up a sack or two against Wofford, but as he dragged down Bryce Corriston on the first play of the Pitt-Wofford game, he almost couldn’t believe that it happened that fast.
It wouldn’t be fair to claim sole credit though. In fact, Hayes himself admits that it was Deandre Jules who got him through.
“That boy’s hard to move, man,” Hayes said after the win. “I love being on his side.”
Jules wreaked havoc on Pitt’s first defensive drive Saturday against Wofford, creating the pressure that led to Hayes’ sack and blowing up the Wofford snap with a 4-yard tackle for loss. He flashed burst and explosion off the line that the team raved about all summer, but he wasn’t alone. Pitt’s defensive line led the charge all afternoon.
“They’re special, they’re big-time players, so watching them work — obviously you want to make plays — but seeing them do their thing is always great,” Shayne Simon said after the win.
Pitt racked up four sacks, six tackles for loss and made life difficult for the Wofford offense all afternoon, holding the Terriers’ offense to just 52 yards before an iffy 75-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter, and Pat Narduzzi liked even more that the defense kept Wofford off the field.
“There was a lot of three-and-outs,” Narduzzi said. “That’s what you love. I don’t know what the time of possession was today, but it was pretty large, I think …
“When your defense is going three-and-out, and your offense is driving the football and converting fourth downs, I think it’s going to be a good day for you.”
Pitt forced four three-and-outs Saturday, burning just over eight minutes and allowing -5 yards on those four possessions. Another three-play possession ended with a fumble. And it was a 41:33 to 18.27 time of possession advantage for Pitt.
It may have just been Wofford to many outside the program, but the Pitt coaching made sure to emphasize that the squad was to take the Terriers as seriously as it would Georgia. Or Alabama. Or, now this season, Notre Dame or Florida State.
Pitt came out fast and ready, playing hard and physical, and it resulted in a dominating performance that allowed the coaching staff to feature younger players who normally wouldn’t receive extended — or really any — looks in a live situation. Hayes wanted more sacks of his own, but what he really wanted was for the entire defense to eat.
He was able to watch youngsters like Samuel Okunlola and Jimmy Scott and Isaiah Neal rotate into the lineup, and it was both fulfilling and motivating. As he watched Okunlola record his first career sack, he couldn’t help but want another of his own.
Hayes is very impressed by Okunlola — and not just by his reps Saturday. “Sammy O’s the next great,” Hayes said, “he’s a prodigy.”
Still, it’s not just the defensive linemen either. Even though the defensive line as a whole may be the deepest unit on the depth chart. The number of serviceable linebackers is growing in numbers by the day, and the experienced cornerbacks are leading the young safeties right into the fire.
“This is a special team,” Simon said. “We got a good group here.”
Simon felt like Pitt’s defense as a whole handled everything it wanted to against Wofford. The goal was for a shutout, of course, and while it was close, it didn’t come to fruition. However, he felt like Pitt handled its business and was able to move on to Week 2 with clear goals in mind.
“I think it was a good win for us, a good output and execution, but there’s always more out there,” Simon said. “We’re gonna go back tomorrow and watch the film and see how we could’ve made steps this way or a tackle this way … so I think it was a good game, a good performance, but there’s more to improve on.”
It was important to have a game in which the defense could see just how communication between positions and across the defense as a whole was able to function. Pitt won’t say it was an easy game to get it out of the way, of course, but…
After a long offseason, and a long week leading into that Week 1 matchup against Wofford, communication — communicating effectively — feels natural for the unit.
Communication and positioning, making the right fits in Narduzzi’s defensive scheme, are what lead to what allows a Narduzzi defense to operate most effectively.
“I think we’re all aggressive, we all try to hunt,” Simon said. “I was trying to take that sack from Dayon, but he got there before me. We all try to make plays, we all try to play fast, play aggressive.”
Cincinnati‘s new-look offense, led by transfer quarterback Emory Jones and a deep, talented group of wide receivers, will be a very different test for the defense. A much greater test for Pitt’s communication and ability to stay in its assignments. But that aggression, the desire to hunt, won’t be going anywhere.
It won’t get any easier with some tough offensive opponents on the schedule to come this season, but Pitt’s defense has a foundation to build upon moving forward.