OAKLAND--During his five-year stint at the University of Virginia, head coach Mike London ran a 4-3 defense that, for the most part, ranked among the ACC's basement dwellers in annual defensive categories. After he resigned last November, in came Bronco Mendenhall, the longtime defensive wizard who resurrected Brigham Young’s football program to national relevance for the 10 years he manned the helm there.
Mendenhall has historically favored the 3-4 defense, which is the preferred scheme of just a little bit over one dozen teams across the college football landscape. He brought it to Virginia, where the Cavaliers’ defense has received mixed reviews in year one under Mendenhall.
One of the key roles in any 3-4 defense is that of the nose tackle, who lines up over the offense’s center but will get physical with both offensive guards.
In Virginia’s case, it’s Donte Wilkins, a 6-1, 300-pound senior, at nose tackle.
“Wilkins is a good player inside,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said Wednesday. “But I think we got some good players inside that can handle him up front.”
If Wilkins is able to get around center Alex Officer, if means that left guard Dorian Johnson or right guard Alex Bookser will have to pick Wilkins up in a double team, which leaves left tackle Adam Bisnowaty or right tackle Brian O'Neill one-on-one with Virginia’s defensive ends. One of Wilkins’ secondary goals is to push Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman to one side of the pocket or the other. Doing so hinders the quarterback's vision, limiting passes thrown between the hash marks.
Wilkins isn’t a guy who hurts teams statistically. He’s collected just seven solo tackles on the season to go with one quarterback hurry and one tackle for loss. But he a defensive catalyst who Pitt’s offensive line will need to keep in check in order to provide comfort for Peterman.
“He's essential,” Mendenhall said of Wilkins Wednesday. “And, really, Donte's play has been consistent from the beginning. The moving parts around him have become more coordinated and more effective, but when you're a 3-4 team, the nose is where everything starts, and without the ability to control that position and the gaps that he's responsible for, you really can't have consistency.”
While it’s the primary responsibility of opposing linebackers to track down playmakers like Quadree Henderson, Tre Tipton and Maurice Ffrench at the line of scrimmage after they take jet sweeps, it has more often than not been a safety who’s put them to the ground. Since linebackers in 3-4 defenses blitz often, it will be interesting to see how Virginia’s linebackers change their approach to defend the jet sweep and other outside runs that Pitt throws at them.
While at BYU, Mendenhall preached an all-out swarm to the ball. He required all 11 defensive players on the field to sprint to the ball once it approached the line of scrimmage or he would yank them from the game. Mendenhall was a two-year starter at safety for Oregon State in the mid-80s, and he’s relied upon his safeties in a different way since he switched from a 3-3-5 a couple years into his head coaching career.
“I like our safeties a lot, and I think they're both strong tacklers,” Mendenhall said this week. “Pitt will require the safeties to make plays, and again, what they've shown to this point is that it's difficult to get them in 3rd down, certainly difficult to get them in 3rd and long, and you kind of use your safeties at your own risk. The more aggressive that you use your safeties, the more possibility there is of play action and the ball going over your head.
“And so they basically are just looking to play that kind of cat-and-mouse game and monitor where your safeties are and how many plays they're making as the game goes on. And then predicated on that, they determine how many shots and deep throws they take,” he added.
The Panthers’ offense is averaging nearly 250 yards per game on the ground, which is the cornerstone to its 37 points per game. Virginia allows 162 ground yards per game, which is 11th in the ACC in rushing defense.
Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada coached regularly against the 3-4 at his past stops, and Narduzzi has been collaborating with Canada all week to prepare for it. Narduzzi said that Pitt will continue to run the ball at the rate it has to date.
“We're such a good inside-outside zone team, and we’ve got a little bit of power” Narduzzi said. “It really doesn't change much [of our rushing offense] as far as who they are and where they are up front.”
Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. at Virginia's Scott Stadium.