After Pitt redshirt senior linebacker Scott McKillop recorded six tackles in the Panthers' season-opener against Bowling Green, some wondered if the nation's leading tackler in 2007 had lost his touch.
When Pitt hosted Buffalo at Heinz Field on Saturday, McKillop made sure those doubts ceased by recording a game-high 15 tackles, along with 1 tackle for loss, 2 quarterback hurries, and 1 pass breakup.
For his performance against the Bulls, McKillop was named Big East Defensive Player of the Week.
"Buffalo is a great team and it was a great game," McKillop said after the Panthers closed out a 27-16 victory Saturday. "I'm happy that we came out with a victory."
Against Bowling Green, McKillop complemented his 6 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups, and 1 quarterback hurry, but the Falcons' spread attack on offense kept him out of the more conventional alignment for middle linebackers.
By contrast, Buffalo often used I-formation sets that more closely resembled Pitt's offense.
"This was his type of game," head coach Dave Wannstedt said Monday. "They were a two-back team where he would be in his normal position and he had an opportunity to make some plays, and what a big difference, I thought. He got back into form and made plays against both run and pass."
While the Bulls' offense might have been more conducive to McKillop's play, he did have the added task of minding his two outside linebackers. On the weak side, redshirt senior Austin Ransom - a former walk-on receiver who was converted to safety in the spring, back to receiver in training camp, and finally to linebacker a week before the season-opener - was making his second career start. On the strong side, redshirt freshman Greg Williams - who made his collegiate debut in limited duty a week earlier - registered his first career start on Saturday.
Ransom and Williams replaced a redshirt junior and a redshirt senior - both returning starters - respectively, meaning McKillop's responsibilities against Buffalo extended beyond his own assigments.
"[Linebackers coach Joe Tumpkin] said to go out there and lead by example and try to help them with their reads and make them play a lot faster," McKillop said.
"We were starting two [new] outside linebackers beside him and I thought Scott did a really great job of helping those guys and getting everybody lined up," Wannstedt said. "So in addition to the numbers, I really liked his leadership qualities last week."
Beyond the assistance McKillop provided to his young outside linebackers, the second-year starter also contributed to a big play by one of his fellow redshirt seniors, free safety Eric Thatcher.
With less than three minutes remaining in the game and Pitt leading by 11, Buffalo faced a second-and-18 at its own 35 when quarterback Drew Willy dropped back to pass. Willy ran out of the pocket to his left, setting himself up directly in McKillop's sights. Willy side-stepped McKillop just as the linebacker closed in, but the pressure caused Willy to under throw the pass, allowing Thatcher to step in front of the intended receiver 29 yards downfield and make the interception.
The pick set up the Panthers with the ball on their own 36 and 1:26 left on the game clock. Two running plays later, the game was over and Pitt had one.
McKillop said after the game that he and Thatcher planned the whole thing.
"[Thatcher] told me before, he said 'Scott, there's a pick coming, so cause pressure and make him throw it a little under so I can get it.'"
McKillop currently leads the Big East in tackles (10.5 per game) and passes defended (1.5 per game). He entered the season on the watch list for a number of national awards, including the Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Rotary Lombardi Award, the Ronnie Lott Trophy, and the Walter Camp Player of the Year.
In 2007, McKillop averaged 12.58 tackles per game to pace the nation. He was a first-team All-Big East selection and was named to four separate All-America teams. McKillop's only other Big East Defensive Player of the Week recognition came after he recorded 16 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 1 interception against Rutgers in November of 2007.
Chris Peak can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org