The Pittsburgh defense only produced one sack and one turnover in a loss at Rutgers. Co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said despite the 24-point loss, there's reason to be optimistic about where the defense is heading, and where it's progressing.
While no corner has picked off a pass this season—in fact, no corner has an interception since Antwuan Reed's game-ending interception at USF last year—he didn't bring turnovers into play much. In fact, just being down 6-3 at the half was considered a victory for the defense. They did get one fumble recovery in the first quarter, the only Pitt turnover forced on the day. It was the second half that obviously determined the game.
Part of the reason Rutgers pulled away from Pitt was because of a big difference in starting field position—something the defense had to battle all day. Look no further than an average start of its own 44 yard-line, as opposed to Pitt's average start of it's own 22. That coupled with Rutgers manning the clock for 19:02 of the second half, and it translates to the defense being put in difficult spots.
Statistically, the defense held their own—especially in the run game. Pitt limited Rutgers to just 97 yards on the ground, with an average of 2.3 yards per carry. The one benefit to having just one sack is that all sacks contribute to negative rushing yards, which sometimes offset rushing statistics. Since there was just one for Pitt, there's more evidence of how Pitt held the Rutgers ground game in check. The 174 passing yards allowed against Rutgers was a season-low for a Pitt opponent.
Patterson has a goal of finishing a +3 in turnover margin, with at least 12 tackles for losses. Pitt fell well below the turnover goal, but did register nine tackles for losses. That, combined with the limited amount of yardage is enough proof for Patterson that his defense is progressing, despite the loss.
"I think the biggest thing is our kids, since the South Florida game, I feel like they've really started to understand what we're trying to do," Patterson said. "Even in pressuring someone, not going down the middle on someone, attacking the edges and things like that. I feel really good about our progress."
In Saturday's game alone, the Pitt defense was dealt a tough hand on two situations. On Tino Sunseri's first interception, Rutgers took over at the Pitt 36. That time, it was Myles Caragein bailing the offense out with a fumble recovery. This is where Patterson's heavy approach on producing turnovers comes in; just a fair assumption that you never know when and where you might have to bail the offense out. The Panthers were not as fortunate later on. Trailing 6-3, Trey Anderson's early third quarter interception was returned to the Pitt 18. The Scarlet Knights made it a 13-3 game just a few plays later. That touchdown, over the course of the second half, was enough to clinch the win for Rutgers.
"You can kind of see over the course over the last couple of games, the disappointment from my standpoint; one play against Notre Dame, one play we gave up (at Rutgers); get them into a third-and-nine, you get them on the ropes, create some momentum," Patterson said. "We just have to eliminate those cheap touchdowns; those one-play drives that can change the momentum of a game."
Patterson's not faulting the offense for pinning the defense in a hole. In fact, he feels there's just as much pressure put on an offense, even if the ball is in the red zone.
"What we try to preach to our kids, is once the ball moves in the red zone, that's when the field condenses," Patterson said. "That's when it works to our advantage. There's less space, there's less room to operate. If we can get them in those situations second-and-long in the red zone, we feel like we can force them out and hold them to field goals.
"The other thing, (against Rutgers), I believe a couple of drives started on the 10 or somewhere close to the 10 yard-line. What I told our guys, is we have to go out and stop them. That's your job. You can't sit there and say, ‘well, we let a kickoff return go back,' or ‘we let an interception go back.' You have to take that opportunity to change the momentum of the game."
Since the first three games—where it was apparent that Pitt was struggling finishing out games—Patterson feels that the coaching staff has not changed their scheme, as much as they've utilized players a little more to their abilities. Defensive line sounds like a major point of emphasis. Defensive lineman Chas Alecxih led the Panthers on Saturday with 10 tackles, including two for losses and the only Pitt sack. Even by shifting the defensive linemen, he doesn't feel he's made the defense better as much as he feels he's taking advantage of them being more productive.
"We, as coaches, have constantly been evaluating; don't make such a drastic change like we did in the first two games," Patterson said. "It was so drastically different for our kids. We said, ‘Chas Alecxih is a great three technique. Myles has played nose guard. Look at all the reps those guys have had. We kind of modified and built it around their strengths as well. Brandon Lindsey, it took us three or four games. What's his strength? I feel like just now, we're comfortable in doing that and our kids are playing with confidence."
In fact, sometimes it's hard for Patterson to not think about the future, and how this defense is going to look—especially with freshmen like Ejuan Price, Todd Thomas and Brandon Ifill all experiencing big roles now. He is able to peer into this second half of the season, looking back on the first half, with a pretty good idea each week of how this defense can improve upon the previous week. He points back to the South Florida came as a major turning point.
"Oh yeah, I think it'll look different (in the future)," Patterson said. "I think you got a glimpse of it in the second half against South Florida; attacking and edge blitzers, getting athleticism in the underneath coverage, being able to come down and play some man/free (coverage) and two-deep man under and being able to really dictate to the offense in how they are going to attack you. You'll see a difference in how we move through this process, and it is a process.
"We settled in. South Florida, the second half, I really felt good about our sub packages. With Todd Thomas, last week, not being able to play, that kind of affected us because he's so explosive coming off the edge. Brandon Ifill came in and did a nice job. We're much more comfortable. It just seems like it's taken us four or five weeks to get all the pieces of the puzzle in the right position. We have definitely got a better grip on that now. I feel very comfortable going into these last six games."