Pitt Defense Looks To Finish Tackles

Dave Wannstedt was asked this week what the emphasis was going to be in practice this week, leading into the West Virginia game. His answer was simple.

Missed tackles.

Though there's no stat kept on the number of missed tackles in a game, just the fact that Pitt had to hold on to beat South Florida 17-10 is enough of a statistic. The Panthers held the Bulls run game in check for much of the game. Outside of a 45-yard touchdown run, the Bulls averaged just three yards a carry for the game. The South Florida offensive line was allowing a sack for every nine passing attempts. Pitt's defense managed a sack for every 15 pass attempts on Saturday.

The reason wasn't schemes, or someone missing a gap or missing an assignment. It came down to Pitt not finishing plays, specifically not making tackles.

"There is no question on defense (the point of emphasis) is tackling," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I think when we beat (West Virginia) the last couple of times, I think the one year we had seven missed tackles and the other year we had three. Because of their quickness and athletic ability that will be a primary concern."

As it should be.

In last year's game, Noel Devine ripped off an 88-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of last year's 19-16 loss. Missing tackles against South Florida is one thing, but West Virginia's skill players are already dangerous, and turn good opportunities into great ones when given the chance, such as not making tackles on them.

In addition to Devine, who is averaging 4.5 yards a carry, there's the bigger running back (6-0, 247) in Ryan Clarke. Tavon Austin went from running back to receiver, but is just as dangerous in the open field as Devine or Steve Slaton. Jock Sanders leads the team with 54 receptions. The Panthers cannot afford to miss any tackles on these athletes, or they will pay worse than they have against any opponent this season.

"Me and the safeties have been staying after--Jason (Hendricks), Jarred (Holley)--we've been staying after (practice), working on (tackles)," safety Dom DeCicco said. "These guys have speed, and if you miss a tackle, it could end up in six points. Everybody all over the defense, we're emphasizing wrapping up, bringing them to the ground, clawing, doing anything we can just to get them to the ground."

Here are just a few of the instances where missed tackles either extended a Pitt drive, made a big play for the Pitt defense turn into a big play for the USF offense, or where the following play after a missed tackle resulted in an even bigger play:

- USF had a 2nd-and-12 at its own 30. B.J. Daniels hit Dontavia Bogan for a gain of 17. Antwuan Reed had a chance to make a tackle on the play, but missed. USF gets the ball up to its own 47, but more importantly instead of facing a third down, get the first down.

- On that same drive four plays later, the Panthers have a chance to get off the field, facing a 4th-and-2. Moise Plancher ran over the left side. Ricky Gary made contact with Plancher, but that was hit. Plancher kept going, running over Gary and knocking his helmet off. Plancher got five yards, and gave the Bulls a new set of downs, with a chance to get a go-ahead field goal before halftime. This drive lasted 13 plays, and went 63 yards covering 5:39. Thankfully for Pitt, the Bulls missed a 52-yard field goal, which could have led to a 6-3 USF lead at halftime. Pitt squandered two chances to get off the field. The defense cannot afford this on Friday.

- The one play that summed up Pitt's problem in making tackles came on the first series of the second half. With Brandon Lindsey and Myles Caragein convergin on B.J. Daniels, both were in reach of dropping the quarterback for a 10-yard loss at his own 10. The missed, but Dom DeCicco got to him. Had the defensive linemen gotten to Daniels, Pitt would be looking to stop a 2nd-and-20 at the USF 10. They hadn't been in such a luxury to this point all day. Instead, because they missed, DeCicco kept coming and was flagged for a personal foul, for leading with the helmet. The play was extended, and the drive would be extended. Instead of 2nd-and-20 at their own 10, the Bulls had a 1st-and-10 at their own 35.

"I was disappointed last week," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett added. "If you watched the game last week, we missed sacks, we missed way too many tackles. The (missed sack) comes to mind. We missed two sacks on that play. It should have been third-and-thirty. We give them a first down."

Linebacker Max Gruder finished with nine tackles last week against USF, second on the team behind DeCicco's 13. Making tackles, or finishing tackles may be a fundamental thing. With that being the case, Grduer cites the team's will to win as its motivation for perfecting this fundamental.

"We've been making strides every week; stupid penalties and missed tackles, but I was really proud of our defense last week," Gruder said. "That's something I think we really acquired over the season. We're getting the mentality that we won't lose. We put ourselves in those positions by missing tackles and extending drives through penalties. We knew in the back of our mind we weren't going to lose, and that's what I am really proud of our defense, over the last week."

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