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Pitt Defense Has Major Opportunity Against Leaky Wake Forest Line



Pitt defense.

If there’s an area where Wake Forest stands out offensively, it’s in sacks allowed.

That’s not exactly a stat you wanted to be known for — or lead the conference in (by a wide margin, with a bye week already in the books). But it’s not as if the Wake Forest offensive line has given up an unparalleled number of pressures and hurries this season either.

Wake Forest has allowed 68 pressures and 36 hurries (as opposed to 62 pressures and 38 hurries from the Pitt offensive line), but the Demon Deacons have allowed 29 sacks (sixth worst in the NCAA) and 4.83 sacks per game (third worst) this season. PFF credits the Deacons’ line with allowing 19 sacks. That’s 10 sacks that the quarterbacks played themselves into.

Wake Forest has not benefited from its play under center this season, that’s for sure.

Mitch Griffis — the opening day starter — was benched in the first half of Wake Forest’s loss to Virginia Tech last weekend, giving way to backup Michael Kern in the first half, and Griffis was forced back into the lineup after Kern left with a shoulder injury.

Kerns was ruled out against Pitt this weekend, and now Griffis is questionable with an injury of his own, too. That would leave Santino Marucci, a third-year sophomore with just six snaps under his belt, as the potential starter against Pitt. But no matter who it is, the Pitt defensive linemen and defensive backs have a massive opportunity.

Griffis has been bad this season, his 35.9 QBR ranking among the worst quarterbacks in college football (a few points lower than Phil Jurkovec’s own QBR, for reference), and he’s completed 100-of-169 pass attempts (59.2%) for 1,211 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.

And his play has bottomed out against ACC competition, losing to Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech. He’s completed just 40-of-72 pass attempts (55.6%) for 374 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions — hitting a low against the Hokies.

According to PFF, Griffis has made just three big-time throws as opposed to 20 turnover-worthy throws this season — almost 20% of his pass attempts. He’s held onto the ball longer than necessary, taking just about three seconds to get the football out of his hand from the snap, and it doesn’t help that he’s been pressured on just under 38% of his drop backs this season.

Griffis has been sacked 24 times, Kern five times, and it’s a major opportunity for the Pitt defensive line to make a statement.

Pitt defensive end Samuel Okunlola.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Samuel Okunlola (8) September 23, 2023 David Hague/Pittsburgh Sports Now

“I didn’t notice they had 29 sacks,” Pat Narduzzi said Monday at his weekly news conference. “I don’t know where that stands. I didn’t know that. I’ll go tell coach (Charlie) Partridge. He’d better have seven or eight of them, I guess. He needs to look at what we’re doing defensively.

“But every week is a little bit different. They’re RPO, so I haven’t watched a sack tape yet, but we’ll eventually get to that to see how they’re getting what they’re doing, and is it being behind and you’re dropping back and throwing it. If they stay — if it’s a 14-14 game at half, they’re going to keep doing what they do and they’re not going to get sacked very much, but if you get up on them and it’s 28-7, that’s when sacks come. That’s what happened in the championship game.”

It hasn’t been a bad season for the Pitt defense, the unit as a whole actually flashed its might against then-No. 14 Louisville last week by completely shutting down the Cardinals offense in the second. But it hasn’t been a season in which the Pitt pass rush has made a name for itself.

Pitt may have 20 sacks this season, tied for 17th in the NCAA, but Samuel Okunlola (who hasn’t taken too many reps but needs to), Shayne Simon (the starting Mike linebacker) and Bam Brima led the Panthers with three sacks this season.

Dayon Hayes is Pitt’s overwhelming leader in pressures (27), hurries (19) and quarterback hits (six), but he’s only recorded two sacks this season — and missed a team-high eight tackles. He’s been right there, but he needs to finish. There may not be a better opportunity than Wake Forest.

Pitt needs to embrace the youth on the defensive line, guys like Okunlola, Sean FitzSimmons, Nahki Johnson, Elliot Donald and Jimmy Scott, but Hayes shouldn’t be given up on. He’s talented, he’s generated chances and now he just needs to finish those chances now.

Pitt defensive end Dayon Hayes.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Dayon Hayes (50) September 9, 2023 David Hague/PSN

Wake Forest has a couple of solid running backs in Demond Claiborne and Justice Ellison — 141 carries for 663 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns — but the running backs room hasn’t been heavily relied upon this season. And Narduzzi doesn’t want that to change Saturday.

“If you get up on them and all of a sudden, they’ve got to throw it every down and they’re not throwing it the way they like to throw it, it’s build a wall with those offensive linemen and fake that run up the middle and try to dink it all the way down the field,” Narduzzi said.

But it’s not as if the quarterbacks, whether it’s Griffis or Marucci, are without weapons at the skill positions, of course.

It’s a very, very solid if unspectacular wide receiving corps that doesn’t drop the football. Jahmal Banks is the leading receiver, hauling in 36 receptions and three touchdowns without a drop, and the trio of Taylor Morin, Wesley Grimes and Ke’Shawn Williams have all caught double-digit passes this season.

And with the propensity of RPOs, easily the most RPO-heavy offense that Pitt has faced this season, it will pose a challenge for the Pitt defense. But with the way that Narduzzi, Randy Bates and Charlie Partridge stress fits and responsibility, it shouldn’t — that’s the key word here — impact the scheme.

“Playing Wake Forest is like playing the triple option,” Narduzzi said Thursday at his weekly press conference. “The quarterback is riding at the line of scrimmage — he can hand it off, pat the guy on the back and say, go, after he lets the ball go, or he’ll ride it in there and if he feels the RPO isn’t there, he’ll follow the guts into the line of scrimmage.

“So, it’s really a combination of tackle the tailback on the run, the quarterback may follow right behind him, or he gets all the linebackers sucked up in the box because they’re riding it in there for so long and then he’s dumping it off to 12, 15 different variations of routes you’re going to see.

“So, they’ll come back to something else. We’ll have slant routes and glance routes on either side. We’ve worked everything. They’ve thrown RPO routes, they’ve done it all, they threw a fade.”

The Wake Forest RPO will test the defensive backs, especially the cornerbacks that were just tested by Louisville’s Jack Plummer, facing nearly 60 passes last week, and M.J. Devonshire is coming off perhaps the best game of his collegiate career. Marquis Williams and A.J. Woods will be relied upon in a major way.

It isn’t exactly a powerhouse Demon Deacon’s offense, not as it averages well below 25 points per game, but if Pitt is going to unlock its true defensive potential, the defensive front will need to combine with the backend.

And there may not be a better chance to forge that synergy than the opportunity against the Wake Forest offense.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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1 month ago

No glory in beating a Wake team with all those issues, but at least it would show that Pitt can finally defeat a team that IMO it should.

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