Panther Den – Pitt’s defense changes the game again

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Pitt defeated Duke by a score of 28-26 on Saturday afternoon at Acriusure Stadium to improve to 7-4 on the season. It marked the third straight win for the Panthers, and behind that three-game winning streak it was about game-changing defensive plays, and Saturday was no different against Duke.

As Pitt held onto a 20-14 lead, the Panthers were forced to kick the ball back to Duke. On the second play of the drive, a tailback from Duke Jordan Waters took a handoff to the right, and Pitt’s David Green was in hot pursuit.

The Panthers defensive linemen cleared the ball and safety Brandon Hill scooped up the fumble and sprinted in for a 30-yard touchdown to build Pitt’s lead to two touchdowns. That play proved to make all the difference on Saturday, as Duke drove a late rally and Pitt eventually survived with a two-point win.

Green saw the presnap formation for the Blue Devils and expected a pass. He said that as soon as it was a run he started to make his way to the ball carrier and make a play.

“I didn’t even know the ball was coming out, all I heard was ‘Ball!’ and then I saw Brandon Hill grab the ball and run down the sideline,” Green shared of that play. “I was trying to get a block really fast, and that’s all she wrote.”

Hill was more than happy to jump on it. He said it’s something the team is working on every week in practice.

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“We looked at the Acrisure Stadium sign on defense and I was just chasing the ball like Coach Bates always teaches us and then David Green hit the ball out and I saw it on the ground and we always practice scooping and scoring in practice ,” Hill said.

The return of a fumble for a touchdown marked the fifth defensive touchdown for the Panthers this season, tying a school record set in 1986 that also tied the previous year’s total during the team’s ACC Championship run. Hill said defensive coordinator Randy Bates always emphasizes making high-impact plays.

“He just hammers turnovers and creates game-changing moves in the game because you never know when you’ll need them in defense and it’s also good to score in defense,” said Hill. “It’s fun to do that.”

The Panthers scored more than just a touchdown on Saturday. They limited the ACC’s second lead attack to just 63 yards on the ground. Pitt held Duke below his season average in scoring as well as total yards.

“We’re just so disciplined,” Green said when asked about stopping the run. “We plan great, Duke is obviously a great team and their success shows, but we just go in every week, we’re the underdogs and we need to deliver.”

Stopping the run has been a trademark for this Pitt defense since Pat Narduzzi took over the program in 2015. The Panthers routinely rank among the top in the country in run defense, and this season is no different. The Panthers ranked 10th in defending the run this weekend.

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“I think the mantra is to stop running and make them one-dimensional,” senior safety Erick Hallett said. “Obviously the passing yards can be quite misleading and I think they had 290, but when you stop the run and you hold someone to 60 yards I mean that says a lot about your defense and how effectively we function.”

The Pitt defense was not as dominant as it had been in the previous two games against Syracuse and Virginia. The Blue Devils had some success through the air, also catching Pitt asleep on some long passes. It was somewhat out of their hands, due to some mistakes from the Pitt offense and special teams. Pitt turned the ball twice and had an adventure of time getting down kicks on Saturday. Some of the lost field position led directly to Duke touchdowns.

Hallett acknowledged that the team still needs to outperform to finish games. The team did allow a 49-yard touchdown on a coverage breakdown, and the Blue Devils had an improbable score of 47 seconds left on 4th and 18th attempts.

“I think we were just hammering, especially in the last few weeks, ‘We have to finish it. We need to improve in the fourth quarter’ and as you can see we still have some room for improvement’, explains the safety senior. “So I think that’s what we’re going to look at and just find ways to go after the quarterback or play better coverage or different coverage and support in the fourth quarter.”

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While the Panthers didn’t close the door on Duke’s final touchdown, they did on the Blue Devils’ two-point conversion attempt. Duke opted for a ‘Philly Special’ style two-point conversion game, but it blew up before it ever had a chance. Pitt defensive ends Deslin Alexandre and John Morgan crashed in, while middle linebacker Sir’Vocea Dennis made the stop.

“You know, they like tricks there,” said Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi during that last call. “I can’t tell you we saw the exact one. but it’s a great move from our defense. They like their setbacks… We didn’t call it for the snap, I can tell you that, but great play from our defense.’

During the undefeated November, the Pitt defense allowed only 214 yards and 14 points per game. They have allowed five touchdowns in these three games, but scored three of their own.

“It’s such a great feeling,” said Green of the defense playing at a high level throughout the play. “I love these guys with all my heart, like we’ve been through hell and high every week and just keep on grinding. It’s a blessing. It just goes to show that hard work really pays off at the end of the day.”

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