DEFENSE PLACING MORE PRESSURE ON ITSELF
Despite the offense producing just one touchdown in its last two games, members of the Pitt defense have placed additional pressure on themselves. The defense finished the Rutgers game with eight tackles for loss, a sack and a fumble recovery. Against Utah, the defense finished with 17 tackles for loss, seven sacks and no turnovers.
Max Gruder feels the defense is making great progress in those areas, in addition to the third down and red zone defense. Pitt has held its last two opponents to converting 10-of-33 (30.3%) third downs. They also kept Utah out of the end zone in four red zone appearances. Still, there's a need to produce more, he feels.
"First of all, I don't think we played well," Gruder said. "You want to see well, go look at Utah's defense. They created turnovers. We played good defense, but to play great defense you need to create turnovers like Rutgers's defense did and like Utah's defense did. We're not creating turnovers. We're doing the right things, but we're not helping our offense out. We'll never get frustrated. The object is to hold them to no points. It doesn't matter how well we play if we end up losing.
"I think that was one of the bright spots of the loss; how many tackles for loss and how many negative plays we created for them. It was 17 (tackles for loss) and seven (sacks). That's pretty good. That's a pretty good goal for every game for our defense. We met our goal, but the key is with those explosive plays, we want to keep it going and actually create a turnover with that. Those are all good plays, but to make it a good play, we need to create turnovers."
The increased number in tackles for loss and sacks have shown. In the first five games, Pitt was giving up an average of 414 yards a game. In the last two, the Panthers have allowed an average of 309.5 yards a game, included its lowest output for a game, 251 to Utah. Chas Alecxih echoed those same sentiments.
"We've just missed a lot of opportunities," Alecxih said. "It's killing us. We have seven takeaways, and that's embarrassing as a defense. We just have to get better. We're working on it in practice. I think you're going to see those numbers go up in the next five games."
Alecxih felt that Utah's lone offensive touchdown of the day sums up how close the defense is to putting it all together—the tackles for loss, the sacks and the success on third down. Now, they just need turnovers.
"We're going to try and control what we can control," Alecxih said. "Coach (Graham) was just talking the last game; quarterback tries to throw the ball away, it gets tipped up over our defender's head, and they run for a touchdown. You can't control that. Just controlling; controlling what we can control."
Gruder is second in the Big East in tackles per game. While that's a nice individual accolade, he said he's more concerned with his team's record.
"I don't care," Gruder said, when informed he was one of the leading tacklers in the conference. "I didn't know, I don't care. We're 3-4."
Alecxih also apologized for his post-game comments, when he said that Utah offensive lineman John Cullen gave him a "cheap shot" on a late hit in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game.
"I want to apologize for some of my comments after the game," Alecxih said. "I was pretty fired up. I'm a pretty emotional guy sometimes, and I tend to say what's on my mind without thinking of the consequences."
As for injuries, Todd Graham expects to have Lucas Nix and Todd Thomas back in the lineup. He feels comfortable with Matt Rotheram. In fact, he said Rotheram is one of the top five linemen at this point. The redshirt freshman will be working at both guard and tackle this week. He did not say which position Nix would come back at. Nix has started at both right guard and right tackle in his career.
With the defense allowing 33 sacks—the most in all of Division I—a move of Nix back to tackle, with Jordan Gibbs now at left tackle—gives the Panthers the most hope of solidifying its pass protection.
"We're looking forward to having Lucas back," Graham said. "We're working him back in slowly. Todd Thomas; looking forward to having him back, working him back in slowly. Jason (Hendricks), we'll have to wait and see on that deal. Whether we have him back, we'll have to wait and see. I would have to say it's doubtful."
Andrew Taglianetti and Brandon Ifill will combine to fill in for Hendricks at that bandit safety position. As we've seen, Taglianetti could also come up closer to the line. In fact, Graham prefers the luxury of being able to use Taglianetti in more than one spot, leaving Ifill to come in and play more. Graham did confirm that wherever it's at, Rotheram will start.
"Taglianetti and Ifill will handle the bandit position," Graham added. "We don't want to burn Lafayette (Pitts') redshirt. He's going to be a great player, and I think it would be unfair to do that. We think we can get it done with those two guys. Hopefully, we can get Jason back. I'm really sad for him, because he was really playing his best football. That's a big loss for us.
"There's no doubt that Rotheram will start. He gave up a couple (sacks) off the edge, but for his first start, he's a big man. As he starts to get comfortable, he is an aggressive kid. He's a kid that will get more physical as we go."
This week, will be a typical week—practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Graham will give the players Friday off, then treat Saturday as a typical Tuesday, Sunday a typical Wednesday, Monday a Thursday, and Friday a Tuesday heading into next Wednesday's game against UConn.