Pitt football improves passing defense against Duke

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Pitt football improves passing defense against Duke

Matt Galambos (47) and Jeremiah Taleni (94) celebrate Pitt's 56-14 victory against Duke.| John Hamilton, Senior Staff Photographer

Matt Galambos (47) and Jeremiah Taleni (94) celebrate Pitt's 56-14 victory against Duke.| John Hamilton, Senior Staff Photographer

Matt Galambos (47) and Jeremiah Taleni (94) celebrate Pitt's 56-14 victory against Duke.| John Hamilton, Senior Staff Photographer

Matt Galambos (47) and Jeremiah Taleni (94) celebrate Pitt's 56-14 victory against Duke.| John Hamilton, Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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It’s no secret that the Pitt football team has been explosive on offense this season. The Panthers’ 56-14 win Saturday over Duke gave them a program-record 432 points scored in only the team’s 11th game of the season.

But the real story in Pitt’s resounding win over the Blue Devils was the statement made by the defense, as it marked the team’s first complete performance from start to finish this season.

In Saturday’s game against Duke, Pitt found a way to pair its stout run defense — ranked No. 4 in the nation with 98.1 yards allowed per game — with a much-improved pass defense. And the team did it without the services of star safety Jordan Whitehead, who is out for the rest of the regular season with an arm injury.

The Panthers have been criticized for a number of things this season, from failing to close out games in the second half to failing to stop anybody’s passing attack on defense. Whether it’s been due to conservative play calls by head coach Pat Narduzzi or careless offensive plays, all the team’s problems seemed to resolve themselves other than the passing defense — until this week.

“I know you guys [the media] worry about the passing game, but I worry about the running game,” Narduzzi said.

For the first time since the season opener against Villanova, the Panthers excelled on both phases of defense. The Blue Devils may be one of the least dangerous teams in the ACC, but they were coming off a win over No. 17 North Carolina last week.

After letting up an easy touchdown drive on Duke’s second possession, the Panthers kept the Blue Devils from scoring on their final 10 drives and held them to only 243 yards passing and a miniscule 25 yards rushing.

Star defensive end Ejuan Price returning to form after failing to make an impact the past two weeks certainly helped — and Rori Blair’s return from injury at the other end was a big reason why.

“With [Allen] Edwards playing like he’s been playing and getting to start the past couple weeks and Rori being back, we were able to get Ejuan a little bit of a break and keep him fresh,” Narduzzi said at his postgame press conference.

Price immediately felt an advantage when he realized the Blue Devils weren’t double-teaming him as opponents had the past couple of weeks. The sixth-year senior racked up a pair of sacks and three tackles for loss in another standout performance, and he now ranks fifth in the country with 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.

“[Defensive line] coach [Tom] Sims was asking me what I was seeing … I said, ‘I don’t think they’re sliding to me,’” Price said. “He was like, ‘Well if they aren’t sliding to you, you better make a play.’ Surprisingly, they didn’t double-team me in the first half, so that’s where most of my production came from.”

Senior linebacker Matt Galambos — named the ACC’s Co-Linebacker of the Week after racking up 12 tackles against Clemson last week — finished with a team-high five solo tackles and two quarterback hurries against the Blue Devils.

Galambos agreed with Narduzzi and other players that the team wanted to use the newfound confidence provided by the Clemson win as motivation to avoid a letdown against Duke.

“We only let up one touchdown. During the year we let up a lot of points on [defense], so it was good,” Galambos said. “Especially coming off the last game — the big game — we didn’t want to have a hangover and not really focus on Duke. We knew we had to come off firing right away.”

With the Panthers playing without senior nose tackle Tyrique “Big Freak” Jarrett for the last two weeks, redshirt junior Jeremiah Taleni has stepped in and made sure the team’s run defense is as dominant as ever. He made four total tackles and 1.5 sacks last week against Clemson, and did a great job clogging up holes and helping to stop the run against the Blue Devils.

“Jeremiah Taleni is a hell of a player. He’s a confident guy and he brings a different element than Tyrique Jarrett,” Price said. “Obviously he’s not 360 pounds, but he’s good weight and he’s quick as a devil, so he’s definitely a playmaker.”

Narduzzi likes what he has seen out of his team the past two weeks as the Panthers look to close out the regular season on a three-game winning streak and reach eight wins for the second straight year.

“We’re really excited about what we’re doing here as our kids start to figure it out,” Narduzzi said. “We have a big game against Syracuse and we need the same tempo for next Saturday.”

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