In the world of Pitt Athletics, there are two dueling factions: those who look for the silver lining and those who think the sky is falling. This is their column.
*insert Law&Order dun dun here*
This week’s topic is the defense; a defense that has been quite offensive this season. When FSU tore them a new one, it was easy to justify because of how immensely talented FSU is. They could end up the national champion this season. When the starters played a good game against New Mexico, things stated to look better. A great start to the Duke game looked like this: interception, interception, touchdown allowed, punt. After that punt, the offense scored and with a 27-7 score, it looked like Pitt would cruise to an easy victory.
Then, the defense fell apart.
They allowed back to back touchdowns, and along with a punt return for a score, the game was back in contention. The offense stepped it up and made sure it was a 2 score game at halftime, 37-28. Thankfully, the defense came out strong in the 3rd quarter and the offense built a 51-28 lead.
Then, the defense fall apart…again. The offense did just enough in the 4th quarter to hold on and thanks to a clutch Savage to Weatherspoon throw, Pitt came away with the victory. The game really became a tale of two defenses when you break it down. The defense in the 1st and 3rd quarters was perfectly fine. If that defense shows up in the 2nd and 4th quarters, Pitt wins by 15+ easily.
If you consider which quarter a majority of the plays occurred in, here’s how the breakdown on the defense looks:
1st quarter: 2 turnovers forced (2 INTs), 1 punt forced, 1 TD allowed.
2nd quarter: 2 touchdowns allowed
3rd quarter: 1 turnover forced (fake punt failed), 2 punts forced, 1 TD allowed.
4th quarter: 2 turnovers forced (2 INTs), 3 TDs allowed.
So in the 1st and 3rd quarters, the defense forced 3 turnovers, 3 punts, and only allowed 2 TDs. That’s an acceptable ratio. Not great, but acceptable, especially given how the offense played. In the 2nd and 4th quarters, they allowed 5 TDs along with 2 turnovers. No punts and 5 TDs (technically 1 punt was in the 2nd quarter, but that drive mostly occurred in the 1st) is an absolutely pathetic margin. So is there hope for the defense?
The Optimist: While it would require a lethal combination of narcotics to consider this defense good, the pieces are in place for them to be good enough for the team to win 8-9 games. The secondary is clearly capable of forcing turnovers. Aaron Donald is fully capable of reeking havoc up front. There’s a ton of experience at LB. While the defense won’t earn a shutout, they’re a lot better than they looked against Duke in the 2nd and 4th quarters.
Something I’ve mentioned several times is that defenses struggle the week after they play an option offense. While Duke ran option plays, they still passed the ball quite frequently. New Mexico is an option based offense that rarely passes the ball. It is very difficult to drastically change defensive game plans in one week. The way you play New Mexico and the way you play Duke is drastically different. The defense had nearly 2 weeks to prepare for New Mexico. They had only 1 week to prepare for Duke and I have a hunch the transition was too difficult. It was obviously difficult for Duke to go from GT to Pitt.
The transition from Duke to Virginia will be a lot easier. Virginia is a pro style team that has a mobile QB and runs some option plays. Sound familiar? We’re going to see a lot of the same concepts we saw from Duke from Virginia. Their QB is prone to interceptions and they’re going to use a variety of RBs. The defense doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel in one week. They have to adjust to tendencies and focus on playmakers at different positions.
One of the things a new defensive coordinator will struggle with is week to week adjustments when opposing schemes are dramatically different. Good news: Duke, Virginia, and Virginia Tech are not that different. Coach House will not have to make a ton of adjustments until Old Dominion comes to town and hopefully the large talent advantage makes life a lot easier. Things will get sticky after that adjusting from Old Dominion to Navy, but the schedule makers blessed Pitt when they scheduled Georgia Tech right after Navy; their offenses are virtually identical.
Without a dramatic scheme adjustment, the defense will look a lot better against Virginia and Virginia Tech. If they don’t? We better hope Tom Savage has 6 TDs and 0 INTs in him on a weekly basis.
The Pessimist: No matter what scheme adjustment is made from week to week, there are no excuses for the things the defense screwed up against Duke. Shane Gordon whiffed on Duke QB Connette before he waltzed into the end zone. Ray Vinopal was repeatedly out of position and got burned. Small and medium gains were exacerbated by poor angles and poor tackling. Players constantly bit on pump fakes and play action.
When a defense is failing at some of the most basic fundamentals across the board, things that weren’t issues last year, something is horribly wrong. Some people are pointing to superior opponents this year, but in what world is Duke a drastically better offense than Notre Dame? Last year they were nearly identical in total yards and Duke used their 3rd string QB against Pitt this year.
The players are screwing up basic assignments, the coaches can’t adjust, and they fall for every play fake under the sun. They play with their heads on a swivel instead of focusing on their job. A safety should never just stare at a QB while a WR runs right past him. A senior LB should never miss a QB behind the line of scrimmage.
When Virginia does the same things Duke did and drops 40+ on this team, we’ll once again fail to win 3 straight games for the first time since 2010. At this point, fans should hope that the defense can keep Old Dominion in check.
What does everyone think? Will similar schemes help Coach House and the D play better against Virginia or is it going to be just as ugly next week?