There were more than a few issues with Pitt's defense in the season-opening loss to Florida State at Heinz Field last Monday. That probably goes without saying, since the Panthers gave up 41 points and more than 500 yards of offense to the Seminoles.
Somewhere on the list of issues is the matter of "keys," an oft-used defensive term that refers to the indicators a player reads before and after the snap to dictate where he should go and what he should do. Properly reading keys puts players in the right position to make plays; not reading those keys correctly leads to opportunities for the offense.
See also: Florida State tight end Nick O'Leary's three touchdown receptions against the Panthers.
"I think that's the reason why the score was like that and we got beat," linebacker Anthony Gonzalez said this week when asked about the issue with reading keys. "Everybody needs to hone in on their assignment and do their own job, and if we do that, we'll be a good defense."
If those elements - reading keys, executing assignments, doing one's own job - were issues that cost the defense against Florida State, then the importance of making corrections is tenfold for Saturday's game against New Mexico. Bob Davies' team runs an option attack that ranks No. 17 in the nation in rushing. The Lobos are led by redshirt senior Kasey Carrier, who is the No. 1 rusher in college football with an average of 172.5 rushing yards per game.
Carrier is supported by quarterback Cole Gautsche, who was New Mexico's leading rusher in the season opener before missing the second game with a concussion. Gautsche will be back for the Pitt game to complement Clayton Mitchem, who averages 4.9 yards per carry and will be the starter on Saturday.
As with any option offense, the assignments are crucial to an effective defense. Each defensive player has a responsibility on an option snap, and if one player doesn't execute his assignment, things can go wrong.
"The biggest challenge an option team brings to the table is that you have to be disciplined up front," defensive ends coach John Palermo said Wednesday. "If you're supposed to collision, if you're supposed to take the quarterback, if you're supposed to take the dive, if you're supposed to take the pitch, it's really alignment-assignment football, and one mistake against an option team can result in a big play."
"It's not like you're just going to find the football and everyone's going to go swarm; everyone's got to play disciplined," Paul Chryst said during his weekly press conference Monday. "You've got different jobs to do and it's hard; when one guy doesn't do his job, someone else wants to try to cover for them, and then you can get into a little bit of a trap.
"I think it's being disciplined. They do a good job when they're running the football and then you're susceptible to some of the action passes off of it. So I think discipline is the key; discipline and trust would be the two words that, defensively, we've got to do. And obviously we've got to execute. We've got to tackle and do all that. But I think it's just making sure that we're disciplined, that we're following our keys and that we're trusting that the guy next to me is doing his job so I can focus on doing my job."
That puts the onus on all 11 players who line up on defense for Pitt. Defensive ends and outside linebackers, in particular, have to understand their responsibilities on the option plays, and the rest of the unit has to be sound in its own assignments.
Palermo is a veteran coach, and he has seen what happens when a defense doesn't execute properly against an option offense.
"You better do what you're supposed to do or you're going to get gutted," he said. "If I'm supposed to squeeze and take the dive or if I'm supposed to take the quarterback and I don't do it, you've got big issues on defense. You really do. It doesn't matter if you play New Mexico or you play Florida State; if you don't do your job, you've got issues."
With considerable size and talent advantages on offense, the only clear vulnerability that could put this game in jeopardy for Pitt is in the assignments on defense. If Pitt's defense plays smart and the players are disciplined, then the Panthers should be able to contain Carrier, Gautsche and the rest. And if that happens, Pitt should be able to win the game comfortably.
If not, things could get ugly at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon, even it's just in the form of a close game.
"If you go against the No. 1 team in the country or the No. 126 team in the country, it concerns me that if you don't do your job and you're not disciplined and focused, you can get beat," Palermo said. "You see it every week with teams that are so-called favorites in a game get beat, basically because they don't do their job."
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