football Edit

Pitt defense carries the day - again

ATLANTA - If you can’t have a great offense and a great defense at the same time, it’s at least good to have one of them.

If you have one, then ideally that side of the ball can cover for the other side when it struggles. And for Pitt in 2019, the equation is pretty easy to identify:

The Panthers have a defense that is bordering on - if it hasn’t already crossed the line - greatness and an offense that is, to put it mildly, not great. So there have been more than a few occasions this season when Pitt’s offense, either through turnovers or simply failed possessions, has kept the opponent in the game while the Panthers’ defense has done something different.

It has kept the opponent out of the game.

“I think we have shown that we are dominant so that we can take over a game and really swing it around,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Cam Bright said Saturday after Pitt’s 20-10 win over Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

That latest victory, which achieved bowl eligibility for Pitt by improving the Panthers’ record to 6-3 overall, was the sixth time in nine games this season that the defense has held its opponent to 20 points or less and the fourth time an opponent has scored less than 17.

There is no smoke-and-mirrors to that performance: Pitt is simply dominating opponents defensively. Georgia Tech, sporting an offense that was already moribund, produced a season-low 194 yards. Last week, Miami 208 yards of total offense. UCF is the only team to reach 400 yards against Pitt this season, seven of the other eight opposing offenses were held to 323 or less.

And the Panthers have needed every bit of that effort, because their offense continues to be an issue. The unit couldn’t reach the end zone in the 16-12 loss to Miami, settling for four field goals in a game where a touchdown or two would have won it.

The defense’s efforts were wasted in that game, but on Saturday, Pitt came out with a win thanks to two touchdowns, solid field-goal kicking and, as always a dominant defensive performance.

“Our scheme and our game plan are unbelievable,” redshirt senior linebacker Kylan Johnson said. “Coach (Randy) Bates does a good job putting us in the right position to stop our opponents. But yeah, I really think the other team, they really have to think about when they’re out there of how they’re going to move the ball on us.”

Georgia Tech didn’t have any answers on how to move the ball. In addition to gaining less than 200 yards, the Yellow Jackets converted just two of their 13 third down attempts and completed just eight passes as a team.

And when Georgia Tech actually did mount a drive with a 10-play, 68-yard march in the third quarter, eventually reaching the Pitt 4-yard line with quarterback Lucas Johnson looking at a direct path to the end zone, the Panthers stepped up with arguably the play of the game when Kylan Johnson dislodged the ball and Bright scooped it up across the goal line.

That Bright rumbled 79 yards to give his offense possession far, far away from Pitt’s end zone was icing on the cake.

“You win championships with defense and, again, another spectacular performance by them,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “Put in some tough positions in the first half with three turnovers again, and they just rise to the occasion.”

Narduzzi’s right about those positions the defense found itself in thanks to the offense. Georgia Tech recovered three turnovers in the first half - two interceptions and one fumble - and then started a third-quarter drive at Pitt’s 12-yard line thanks to a blocked punt.

But the Panthers responded. They forced a three-and-out after the first interception and gave up 23 yards to lead to a missed field goal after the second. They did allow a touchdown after Georgia Tech recovered a Maurice Ffrench fumble; that came on a one-play drive - a 51-yard pass - where the Yellow Jackets took advantage of a bust in coverage.

But the defense redeemed itself, if that was necessary, when the Yellow Jackets got the ball at the Pitt 12 after the blocked punt in the third quarter. That possession looked like this:

Incomplete pass. Two-yard run. Three-yard sack. Field goal.

Getting a field goal out of a drive that starts at the 12 is a win for the defense, and that’s the standard that unit is setting for itself.

“We just try to get stops,” said redshirt sophomore safety Paris Ford, who had an interception in the fourth quarter. “That’s our job: to get the ball back to the offense, and that’s what we just try to do.”

The defense has certainly been effective in accomplishing that goal, and as Pitt’s offense continues to develop under first-year coordinator Mark Whipple, every effort by the defense has been needed - and appreciated.

“We all know we have a great defense, but we don’t really want to rely on them,” said quarterback Kenny Pickett, who threw one touchdown pass and two interceptions against Georgia Tech. “Those guys do a great job, but we want to take the game into our hands. We’re still not where we want to be offensively and we’ll continue to work on it as these final few weeks of the season wind down. But yeah, we have an unbelievable defense and those guys give us a ton of confidence.”