Pitt has gone 4-2 over the second half of the season to become bowl eligible for the fifth season in a row.
There are many things unique about this year's team--new coach, last year for the program in the Big East. Then when the actual season started, losses to Youngstown State, Cincinnati and Syracuse also made this team unique. How could a team that started 0-2 go out and best a Virginia Tech team in Week Three, then come back and lose at Syracuse two weeks later. We began to see a pattern--lose two, win two, lose two, win two, etc. It became the only logical way to predict how this team was going to fare.
The first noticeable change in the starting lineup came with the addition of Shayne Hale at defensive end. It's a pretty interesting story with Hale to begin with--a fifth-year senior who barely played a dozen snaps in his entire Pitt career, including special teams.
That's what happened on October 20, as Pitt began its second half of the season. Hale saw the most significant reps of his career at Buffalo that day. The following week against Temple, Hale made his first career start, finishing with six tackles. Since then, his impact on the defensive line and the rest of the defense has been gradual, and even more each week.
Since that Buffalo game, Donald has 13.5 tackles for losses. In the first six games, Donald had 5. Of all defensive players not named Donald, Hale has the most tackles for losses with 6. He capped it off by being named Big East Defensive Player of the Week following five tackles, four for losses, a sack and a pass broken up in the win over South Florida.
"The neat thing about Aaron is that he's earned the right to play well, and to impact games," head coach Paul Chryst said. "You appreciate the way he goes about everything. He's a fun player to be around."
Just take it from Donald, the undisputed leader of the Pitt defensive line, who finished with 3 tackles for losses in a 27-6 win over Rutgers. He's first to credit Hale, and the impact he's made since becoming a starter. Hale had one hurry in that Rutgers game on quarterback Gary Nova. Nova felt the impact so much that he had to leave the game for two series.
"There's not too many tight ends that can block him, he's a big dude," Donald said. "He's getting out on that edge, and letting it all come to us. Then we're able to push it back out to him, he's making a big play too."
Not to be lost in the success of Donald, and the resurgence in Hale, has been the play of Tyrone Ezell and Bryan Murphy. While neither has been the type of explosive that Donald is--they are providing more of a threat down the stretch. Earlier in the season, Donald was constantly drawing double teams. The best way to beat a double team, of course, is to either make a play while fighting off the double, or have another defensive lineman make a play, giving reason for an opponent to draw their attention elsewhere. That was one thing not happening in the first half of the season.
Murphy has played in all 12 games this season, starting 11. He came away with a career-high four stops at Notre Dame. In the first six games, he had a total of 11 tackles, with 1 tackle for loss. In the last six, Murphy has 15 tackles, and picked up a sack in the final game against South Florida.
Ezell's role is much different whether it be draw doubles, take up space, anything to draw pressured away from Donald. He has found a way to make to plays in the rare instance when the attention goes to him and not Donald. Ezell, after being suspended for the opener, started the remaining 11 games. He has 19 of his 34 tackles in the second half of the season, with 3.5 tackles for loss over the same span. He wasn't credited with any stops against South Florida, but classify it as a game for him drawing enough attention to free up Donald.
Things didn't start off great for Pitt's run defense, allowing 204 yards and 259 yards to Youngstown State to start the season. The regular season ended with just eight rushing yards allowed to South Florida. In the first six games, the Pitt defense was giving up an average of 138 rushing yards a game. In the final six games, Pitt allowed 119 rushing yards a game. That includes a 231-yard output from top-ranked Notre Dame.
The numbers are more impressive when you look at yards per carry and touchdowns allowed. Pitt was allowing 4.2 a carry in the first six games with nine rushing scores, 3.3 a carry in the final six games with three rushing scores. Pitt allowed eight total touchdowns in the finals six games, 1 in its last 10 quarters of football.