Panther line makes plays in the clutch, shows potential

By Jay Huerbin

As the crowd roared in the final minute of Pitt’s win over Iowa on Saturday, one thing was… As the crowd roared in the final minute of Pitt’s win over Iowa on Saturday, one thing was certain: Defense does win games. It might have taken two games, but the defense finally made that all-important game-changing play. And it came from an unlikely source. Tony Tucker’s forced fumble with 50 seconds left in the game is just what the Panthers were looking for. ‘That’s a big play,’ said Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop of the fumble. ‘[Tucker’s] young. He’s our third defensive end. And just seeing him there, making that big play, I was happy.’ And he should be happy. The Panthers, who struggled the first two games to make anything happen defensively, dominated the Hawkeyes’ offense on Saturday, especially towards the end of the game. Along with Tucker’s forced fumble, the defense recorded six sacks and had Iowa quarterbacks Jake Christensen and Ricky Stanzi hurried consistently. Throughout the game Pitt exploded with big plays from players all the way down the depth chart. It was the perfect blend between youthful speed and veteran leadership. Younger players like linebacker Greg Williams, whose two sacks led the team, and defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who batted two passes down at the line of scrimmage, mixed well with veterans like McKillop, who anchored the Panthers’ defense by once again leading the team in tackles. For the younger players, growing up is good. But learning from McKillop might be better. ‘Greg [Williams] did [have] a great game,’ said McKillop. ‘He’s still young. Each game he’s going to mature more and get more experience. Him and Austin [Ransom] grew up a good bit today.’ There is no doubt that the positive strides the defense took against Iowa caught the eye of Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. ‘I was really pleased with how our defense rose up,’ said Wannstedt. ‘We’re still growing on defense. With the new coaches we have and the players, we’re still working through some things. I thought it was a great job by our coaches and players of executing the plan.’ The momentum created by the defense came back full swing to quarterback Bill Stull and the rest of the Panthers’ offense, who fed off of the energy that the defense brought to the atmosphere. Down 17-14 late in the third quarter, Iowa started a drive that looked to put the backs of the Panthers against the wall. On the first play, McKillop sacked Christensen for a loss of seven yards. On the ensuing play, Mick Williams hurried Christensen out of the pocket and forced an incomplete pass. Third down would fare no better for the Hawkeyes, and they were forced to punt. A great three-and-out series by the Panther defense fired up the crowd in a way that only Neil Diamond could have hoped for. The result? A nine-play, 80-yard drive by Pitt capped off by running back LeSean McCoy’s 27-yard touchdown run gave the Panthers a lead they wouldn’t give up. With the final seconds ticking off of the clock following Stull’s kneel down, the Panthers beat a Big 10 team, improved to 2-1 and gave their fans some hope. But more importantly, the defense began to mature, which is just what this team needs as they prepare for the rest of season. ‘We’re going to go out there and take care of business,’ said McKillop of next week’s game against Syracuse. ‘We’re on a two-game win streak, and hopefully we can carry the momentum.’