Grabbing a second consecutive ACC win Saturday, Pitt football shone brightly on defense — almost as dazzling as the second-week-in-a-row victory lights — as they beat Virginia, 31-14.
The Panthers made a point of stopping the Cavaliers in key situations, holding Virginia to just six third-down conversions out of 17 attempts. Pitt also limited Virginia to one fourth-down conversion out of five tries as they held the Cavaliers to 102 rushing yards. The squad’s defence excelled at Heinz Field Saturday — but it might not be enough as the Panthers face top opponents in the coming weeks.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Saleem Brightwell set the tone for early with an interception, tipping a pass from senior Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert and running for a 16-yard gain. Pitt took advantage of Brightwell’s interception when Darrin Hall ran 14 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Brightwell’s big play was the first of many Pitt’s excellent defensive performance moments.
“It was real fun being out there with my brothers and making plays,” Brightwell said. “It was electric. It was a great feeling.”
Head coach Pat Narduzzi noticed how the momentum shifted in Heinz Field after Brightwell’s interception.
“Saleem’s pick lit the fire for our guys. Then our offense gets it on a short field after a big pick,” Narduzzi said. “Anytime you have a momentum changer like that it can change things.”
Pitt’s defensive line was also able to win the battle at the line of scrimmage against the Wahoos, making big plays behind the line to the tune of three sacks and four tackles for loss. The Panthers found success in getting to Benkert, racking up eight quarterback hits on the day. Narduzzi praised his defense for coming up big in critical moments of the game.
“A lot of great things happened out there. Our guys did a great job of stopping [Virginia] on third down,” Narduzzi said. “We stopped them four out of five times on fourth down. That’s big-time football.”
The Panthers were swift in the run, too. Virginia couldn’t find success on the ground, only rushing for 102 total yards on an average of 3.3 yards per carry. The longest run that the Panthers gave up was 11 yards.
This impressive performance comes off the back of a game against Duke where Pitt limited the Blue Devils to 17 points.
The improvement against the run and making stands on third and fourth down is a good sign for the young Pitt defense. The more three-and-outs a defense forces, the less time they spend on the field, which allows the team to stay fresh and play well late in games.
This rang true for the Panthers on Saturday, as they faced three fourth down tries in the fourth quarter, giving up only one. And their run defense was nearly unrecognizable compared to the ACC opener, during which they gave up a whopping 436 rushing yards to Georgia Tech.
“I thought we came out at the beginning of the season and played pretty well, but we are definitely getting better,” redshirt junior nose tackle Shane Roy said. “We allow less and less points on the board every game.”
Narduzzi credited both players and coaches for the improvement on the defensive end.
“Our coaches have done a great job to ensure there is no panic or loss of who we are,” he said. “So I credit our coaches and I credit our players. They believe in what we are doing. It’s a process. It’s a growing process and they are learning every week.”
Pitt’s improvement on the defensive side of the ball will be continually tested as the team looks to secure a spot in a bowl game.
While this improvement is a bright spot for an otherwise bleak Pitt season, don’t look for this to continue each week.
Pitt will also face two of the best teams in college football in their last three games — No. 9 Miami and No. 13 Virginia Tech. Expect these opponents to expose some weaknesses in the Panthers’ young defense. While strong against the run, Pitt is still weak in terms of pass defense, especially with the loss of senior cornerback Avonte Maddox to injury.
The secondary will likely struggle against Miami and Virginia Tech — with two of the best quarterbacks in the ACC in Malik Rosier and Josh Jackson, respectively.
This team is still very young. Mistakes will happen, and that is OK. The experience that the young players will gain by playing a lot this season will serve Pitt’s program well for future seasons.