Jordan Todman was unstoppable against Pitt on Thursday night. Pitt entered the contest as the Big East's top run defense, allowing 93 yards a game. After Todman's 220 yards, Dave Wannstedt still felt the defense did some things well. The players feel they have some respect and some pride to earn back against South Florida.
Coming off the loss, and losing a bit of their cushioned lead in the Big East standings, Pitt already has the pressure to rebound from such a disappointing loss. There is also pressure to reinforce their defensive reputation for stopping the run.
"They kind of go hand in hand," linebacker Max Gruder said. "To win, we're going to have to stop the run. B.J. Daniels and their running backs do a great job running the ball as we can see on film. They can do a lot of things that present a lot of matchup problems, including the run. We need to stop it just like we needed to do last week to win this game."
Pitt had two things going for it entering Thursday night's game against UConn. One was the fact they were 3-0 in the Big East. The other was that they led the conference in run defense, and sacks produced. By the time the game was over, Pitt lost, the defense allowed its highest rushing total in four years, while producing one sack. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said despite the emphasis they put on bringing pressure from the front four, the problem did not lie with the front four.
"Last week, our problem was not our defensive line," Bennett said. "Chas Alecxih and Brandon (Lindsey); they did not get knocked off the ball. Our problems were not fitting at another position."
Alecxih had a career-high eight tackles, while Lindsey had Pitt's lone sack and a forced fumble.
"I thought Chas Alecxih probably had as good a performance as we've had by any defensive tackle here in the last four years, and that's a shame when you don't win the game," Wannstedt said. "I think he had eight tackles (at Connecticut). He played very well."
Jabaal Sheard felt after the game that the defensive line didn't play as well. After watching the film, he agreed with Bennett and Wannstedt.
"Watching the film, we didn't (play as bad)," Sheard said. "(Alecxih) made tremendous plays. He had a lot of tackles. Gruder played well. Everybody looked to play good. I guess just not enough big plays. We didn't keep them from enough big plays on defense. (UConn) made too many (big plays on offense)."
It's not as if the run defense is a weakness. When it's not there as it wasn‘t against UConn, Pitt--as a defense--is alone on an island. Sheard said he noticed the run defense have the same tendencies in practice that were later exposed in the game. Sheard promises a more physical week in practice, for starters.
"All the things that happened in practice happened in the game," Sheard said. "All the small plays, like (Todman) will break one here and there. The same exact plays happened in the game which kind of hurt us. We have to take every play in practice like it's a game; practice hard and just don't let any plays break. We kind of just thought, ‘Hey, someone else will step up and make that play,' but obviously in the game, nobody did. In practice, we have to step up and make it."
So if it's not the defensive line, who brings that initial pressure which coincides with stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback, where does that blame go? The answer is a little simpler than complex X's and O's. It comes down to missed assignments and missed tackles. As Bennett said, the problem was another position not making their fits.
"We had a missed fit on one of the first runs, a missed fit was a zone blitz from the field, the corner missed fit, the SAM backer missed fit, which you just can't do that when you're in three-deep," Bennett said. "You have to fit off of what you see. Then, there were missed tackles. One of their biggest plays of the game, we ran a blitz. (Greg Williams) is in the backfield. It's there, and we just don‘t make the play."
Bennett added that while he's not picking on the defensive line, he's also not picking on the linebackers, Max Gruder in particular.
"Max could have played better," Bennett said. "I'm going to be truthful. We could have helped him more. I could have helped him more with some of the things that we did. I'm not putting the blame on Max. I'll take the blame on that. I have to do a better job putting him in the position to make the plays."
The solution to rebounding from last week‘s performance?
"As a coach it'd be easy to say it's not going to happen," Bennett said. "We have to do a better job of putting them in position to be successful. I expects us to do that this week, as coaches."
As they enter this South Florida game, there's even more pressure on the team. The defense will be counted on heavily as they get set for a varied South Florida offense led by quarterback B.J. Daniels and running back Moise Plancher. It's bittersweet in a sense because already the players know by playing more solid on run defense, they'll put themselves in position to win. At the same time, by playing better run defense, they'll be able to shake the bad taste from having their first big letdown on run defense that hasn't been seen all year.