As Pitt prepares for its most difficult nonconference game of the entire regular season, several pressing questions race through the minds of Panther fans. A large portion of them pertain to how the defense can improve over the coming weeks, especially with conference games lurking around the corner.
The Pitt (2-0,0-0ACC) defense possesses the potential to be one of the best in the entire ACC, but season-ending injuries to Sophomore defensive end Dewayne Hendrix and Sophomore linebacker Elijah Zeise leave two holes in the starting unit that must be filled. In addition to injuries, the defense as a whole gave up 39 points and 406 total yards to in-state rival Penn State last week in an offensive showdown. Despite these issues, many bright spots can be seen in the Panther defense going forward.
The main candidate to replace Dwayne Hendrix going forward is Junior Rori Blair form Upper St. Clair, who led them to the semifinals of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs as a senior in 2013. As a true freshman in 2014, he led the team with 5 sacks and also added 14 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for a loss. Last season, he started 10 games at defensive end and tallied 25 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. Although losing the athletic and powerful Hendrix hurts the defense, Blair provides a familiar face that will consistently put pressure on opposing offensive lines while complementing Ejuan Price’s pass rushing abilities by limiting big plays on the ground. The defensive line is in very capable hands.
At the star linebacker spot, Elijah Zeise will be replaced by Oluwaseun Idowu. As an all-purpose player for North Allegheny High School, Idowu saw time at running back, wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive back. He was able to walk on to the team in 2014 and was redshirted with intentions to play safety. Seeing action for the first time last season, he changed his position to linebacker and appeared in 10 games registering just 2 tackles. He usually appeared on special teams units. Although he is 2 inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Zeise, he has had no problem making an impact this season. So far this season he has 9 tackles (6 unassisted) and a forced fumble. What he lacks in size he makes up for in heart tenfold. Idowu has had to claw and scrap to earn his playing time. Now that he is in the spotlight, his tenacity and fearlessness should keep him there and will be used against unsuspecting opposing quarterbacks and running backs. In top of that, his background as a defensive back could be useful to defend third-and-medium or third-and-long situations.
Pitt’s defense has been an anomaly so far this season, giving up just 7 points in week 1 against Villanova and a whopping 39 points to Penn State the following week. For the Panthers, the issue has not been their defensive line or linebacking corps as they currently have the 11th best rushing defense in the NCAA and the 3rd best in the ACC. They allow only an average of 63.5 yards per game on the ground and have posted 5 sub-100-yard rushing performances under coach Narduzzi. They have not lost any of those games.
Pitt is also tied for 2nd in the entire nation with an average of 5 sacks per game and are 34th in tackles for loss with an average of 7.5 per game. Ejuan Price himself is 2nd in the entire country when it comes to forcing fumbles with an average of 1 forced fumble per game. This shows that opposing offenses in the future will use the ground game with caution and will have to utilize as many extra blockers as possible to protect their quarterbacks. On top of that, Pitt is ranked 20th in the country in 3rd down conversion defense. Only 23.1% of opposing 3rd down possessions led to a first down.
In terms of turnovers, Pitt’s defense ranks 3rd in the nation in fumbles recovered (4), 6th in turnovers gained (6), and 14th in turnover margin (1.5). Winning the turnover battle will be crucial going forward, especially against the high powered spread offenses of Oklahoma State (1-1,0-0 Big 12) and North Carolina (1-1,0-0 ACC).
However, two glaring weakness going forward pertain to both passing defense and red zone defense. Out of 128 FBS teams, Pitt ranks 70th in passing yards allowed with an average of 225.5 per game. This includes giving up 332 yards through the air against Penn State. Pitt also currently ranks last in red zone defense out of 93 FBS teams. They have allowed their opponents to score every time they entered the red zone this season. Cornerbacks Ryan Lewis and Avonte Maddox must step up their respective games going forward by not getting burned by deep passes. Oklahoma State and North Carolina both have tall, athletic wide receivers which can pose problems for Lewis and Maddox. This also means that safeties Terrish Webb and Jordan Whitehead have to act as damage control if big plays develop via the passing game.
Overall, Pitt is still 30th in total defense and can pose problems for opponents with their ability to stop the run, pressure the quarterback, and force turnovers. If the Panthers can limit errors in the secondary and begin stopping opposing drives in the red zone, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC. The key player to watch out for in ACC competition will be Jordan Whitehead. He has the ability to change the direction of a football game with one interception or crushing hit and led the team in tackles last season with 109. If he can establish his place in the secondary and help limit big passing plays, many of the defensive problems fans saw against Penn State will be corrected in no time.