lair – Pitt’s defense changes the game again

Pitt defeated Duke by a score of 28-26 on Saturday afternoon at Acriusure Stadium to improve to 7-4 on the season. It marked the third straight win for the Panthers, and behind that three-game winning streak, there have been game changing defensive plays, and it was no different on Saturday.

With Pitt clinging to a 20-14 lead, the Panthers were forced to punt the ball away back to Duke. On the second play of the drive, Duke tailback Jordan Waters took a handoff to the right side, and Pitt’s David Green was in hot pursuit.

The Panthers defensive linemen poked the ball free and safety Brandon Hill scooped up the fumbled and sprinted in for a 30-yard touchdown to build Pitt’s lead to two touchdowns. That play proved to be the difference on Saturday. Pitt’s offense failed to score a touchdown in the second half, and that defensive score represented the Panthers only second half points. Duke mounted a late rally, and Pitt ultimately survived with a two-point victory.

Green saw the presnap formation for the Blue Devils and expected a pass. He said once it’s a run he started making his way to the ballcarrier and made a play.

“I didn’t even know the ball came out, all I heard was, ‘Ball!’ and then I saw Brandon Hill pick the ball and run down the sideline,” Green recounted from that play. “I tried to get a block real quick, and that’s all she wrote.”

Hill was more than happy to pounce on it. He said it is something the team works on every week in practice.

“We were looking towards the Acrisure Stadium sign on defense and I was just pursuing to the ball like Coach Bates always teaches us and then David Green hit the ball out and I saw it on the floor and we always practice scoop and score in practice,” Hill said.

The fumble return for a touchdown was the fifth defensive touchdown for the Panthers this season, tying a school record that was set in 1986 and also matched last year’s total during the team’s ACC Championship run. Hill said defensive coordinator Randy Bates always stresses making high-impact plays.

“He just harps on turnovers and create game changing plays in the game because you never know when you’re going to need those on defense and also it’s good to score on defense,” Hill said. “It’s fun to do that.”

The Panthers did more than just score a touchdown on Saturday. They limited the ACC’s second leading rushing attack to just 63 yards on the ground. Riley Leonard, Duke’s quarterback, was the team’s leading rusher entering Saturday. He finished with -4 rushing yards.

Pitt held Duke under its season average in scoring and total yards as well.

“We’re just so disciplined,” Green said when asked about shutting down the run. “We game plan great, obviously Duke is a great team and their success shows, but we just go in every week, we’re the underdogs and we’ve got to make it happen.”

Stopping the run has been a trademark for this Pitt defense ever since Pat Narduzzi took over the program in 2015. The Panthers routinely rank towards the top of the nation in run defense, and this season is no different. The Panthers were ranked 10th heading into this weekend in defending the run.

“I think the mantra is stop the run and make them one dimensional,” senior safety Erick Hallett said. “Obviously the passing yards can kind of be misleading and I think they had 290, but when you stop the run you and you hold somebody to 60 yards, I mean that says a lot about your defense and how effectively we’re functioning.”

The Pitt defense was not as dominant as they were in the previous two games against Syracuse and Virginia. The Blue Devils had some success through the air, and also caught Pitt sleeping on some long passing plays. It was somewhat out of their hands due to some miscues from the Pitt offense and special teams. Pitt turned the ball over twice in the second half and the team had an adventure of a time getting punts off on Saturday. Some of that lost field position directly led to Duke touchdowns.

Hallett acknowledged the team still needs to do a better job of closing out games. Pitt allowed a 49-yard touchdown on a coverage breakdown and the Blue Devils had an improbable score with :47 seconds left on a 4th and 18 attempt.

“I think we’ve just been harping, especially the past couple of weeks on, ‘We’ve got to finish. We’ve got to better in the fourth quarter’ and as you can see that we still have some room to improve,” the senior safety explained. “So I think that’s what we’re going to look at and just find ways where we can get after the quarterback or play better coverage or different coverage and shore up in the fourth quarter.”

While the Panthers did not shut the door on Duke’s final touchdown, they did thwart the Blue Devils’ two-point conversion attempt. Duke opted for a ‘Philly Special’ style two-point conversion play, but it was blown up before it ever got a chance. Pitt defensive ends Deslin Alexandre and John Morgan crashed in immediately, while middle linebacker Sir’Vocea Dennis made the stop.

“You know, they like trick plays down there,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said on that final call. “I can’t tell you we saw the exact one. but it’s a great play by our defense. They like their reverses… We didn’t call it out before the snap, I can tell you that but great play by our defense.”

During the undefeated month of November, the Pitt defense is allowing just 214 yards and 14 points per game. They have allowed five touchdowns over these three games, but have scored three themselves.

“It’s such a great feeling,” Green said of the defense playing at a high level down the stretch. “I love these guys with all my heart, like we’ve been through hell and high water each and every week and continuing to just keep grinding. It’s a blessing. It just shows that hard work really pays off at the end of the day.”