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September 30, 2013

Defense takes a step in the right direction

After allowing 532 yards of total offense and yielding 55 points against Duke last week, Pitt's defense rose to the occasion against Virginia on Saturday. The unit held the Cavaliers to 188 yards of offense, forced a turnover and held the opposition to just 2.7 yards per play in the Panthers' 14-3 win at Heinz Field.

Of course, Virginia's offense did plenty to help the Pitt defense. The receivers dropped passes close to, if not in the double digits. Quarterback David Watford struggled with accuracy all game, and the run game couldn't gain any real traction.

Still, there's something to be said for doing what you're expected to do, and that's what Pitt's defense did Saturday. The Panthers contained Virginia's attack, only yielded three points and made enough plays to grab the win.

"It felt great to go three in a row," said senior defensive tackle Tyrone Ezell, who batted down two passes. "That's what we've been talking about all week. It's something we haven't done in a while here at Pitt, and it feels great right now."

If nothing else, the win restores some confidence in a defense that looked porous through the season's first three games. On Saturday, the defense held Virginia to six three-and-outs, and only two of its drives went for more than six plays.

The defense also came up with a number of big plays above and beyond doing the job that was expected. Pitt held the Virginia offense to 3 of 18 on third-down conversions and just 1 of 4 on fourth-down tries.

On an early fourth-down attempt, Todd Thomas made a huge play by knifing through the pulling offensive linemen to take down Kevin Parks at the line of scrimmage.

Later, on Virginia's longest drive of the game, the Pitt defense was able to hold at the Pitt 3-yard line. On third down, Virginia ran a bunched pick play to get tight end Jake McGee open in the flat. Linebacker Anthony Gonzalez, who led Pitt with 10 tackles Saturday, read the play perfectly and got to McGee at the line of scrimmage.

On fourth down, Pitt got great pressure up front, and Watford forced a pass to McGee in the back of the end zone. The pass fell incomplete with great coverage from safety Ray Vinopal, last week's whipping boy for the defensive struggles, who looked much improved against the Cavaliers.

These types of plays weren't made in the past three games, but on Saturday, the defense did what it needed to do.

"I think we were ready to rise to the challenge today," said freshman linebacker Matt Galambos, who recorded four tackles in his first career start for the injured Shane Gordon. "Last week we gave up a lot of points, but a win is a win. We came in with a different mentality this week and tried to be more of a unit and cut down on big plays. I thought we leveraged the ball a lot today, gang tackled and played really relentlessly."

Aaron Donald continues to show why he's one of the best defensive linemen in the conference and the nation. He recorded two sacks, two quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and harassed Watford all game. With the defense playing better Saturday, it made Donald's contributions that much more meaningful.

"It felt real good, especially after last week," Donald said. "Last week, we missed plays and that is the difference between last week and this week. Communication was real important and everybody was making plays. We got out there and did was we had to do."

Pitt also took advantage of opportunities. Cornerback Trenton Coles made a heads-up special teams play to recover a muffed punt. Then Bam Bradley pounced on a Watford fumble for the defense. Both these turnovers led to Pitt's only touchdowns of the game.

These are the kind of plays that went against the Panthers in the past, but if the defense is able to take advantage like it did Saturday, the defense will gain even more confidence.

"We just all did our jobs, and we did them well," Ezell said. "That was the same saying for the whole week. We made sure all of our eyes were on our keys and we did that well."

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