Pittsburgh has been flagged for 32 penalties this season, including 20 on offense, and has had 12 turnovers overall with six coming in the last game alone. The Panthers offense has lost four of a staggering nine fumbles and the quarterbacks have thrown eight interceptions.
Defensively, Pitt has four interceptions, and the opposition has lost just one of two fumbles. That fumble was recovered in the last game, but it was the only forced turnover in the past two. All the interceptions came in the first two games with three against a Division I-AA opponent.
However, other than working on stripping drills during every practice for the defense and bringing in referees to monitor practice all this week, Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said nothing will change.
"The goal every week is to go out there and play sound defense and try to shut down the other team, whether it's holding them to a certain amount of yards or a certain amount of points,'' Rhoads said. "So, regardless of the situations, regardless of the state of health or regardless of any other scenario, the philosophy doesn't change, and the schemes don't change.''
That means the defense apparently is going to have to make things happen without blitzing or pressuring the opposition's quarterbacks with more than just the front four. It also means that the defense won't be making any drastic personnel changes to provide a spark, either.
By no means is the defense playing so poorly that it can't turn things around. It was put in difficult situations time and time again this season. Right off the bat last week, the offense turned the ball over, and Connecticut was set up inside the 10-yard line. Still, it doesn't appear that the Panthers defense has turned on its offensive teammates.
"It's not tough, because that's our thing,'' junior defensive tackle Rashaad Duncan said. "It's our job, and we can't complain about it. Sure, they might give us some tough times, a short field or something.
"But we might do some things bad for them, too. So, it's our job to defend the goal line. It's not their fault or anybody's fault, really. We just have to stop the other team's offense no matter what happens.''
Rhoads noted that he stresses early in training camp that adversity and sudden change in a game can occur at any time.
"It wasn't the first game that we found ourselves in that situation,'' Rhoads said. "It happened quick and happened in a very bad part of the field, but it took them three plays to get in. So, I know we took the field in the right frame of mind, even though we played a little tentative the next series.
"But you look back on it, we had a third-down-and-eight and had a chance to make a tackle to get off, but we didn't make it. When it happens extremely early in a game, it certainly shocks the system. ... When you jump on the field on the 7, the system gets shocked and it takes time to recover.''
Fifth-year senior defensive end Chris McKillop noted that the defense's motto has been to stay positive the entire game, regardless of the circumstances. But he believed that even though it has been put in some tough spots with the other team getting good field position, the defense had done a decent job holding the opposition down. That probably was true until the UConn game. There were just too many offensive mistakes.
"I just think it's a lack of focus,'' tailback LeSean McCoy said. "You really can't practice those things. Some things are just mental mistakes, holding calls or offsides, illegal procedures, some turnovers. Those things are mental mistakes, and we need to eliminate them.''
Sophomore tight end Nate Byham believed that the Panthers have to start taking it personally to eliminate the problems with penalties and turnovers.
"I feel that we've been hanging our defense out to dry,'' Byham said. "After they hold a team to three-and-out, then we go three-and-out, and I don't like that at all. I take that personally as an offensive player, so we all need to play better and we need to convert more often on third downs.
"The problems definitely can be corrected. We're killing ourselves with penalties. ... We need to focus a lot more, and I think we're working on it in practice. But we have to focus and go out and execute correctly in a game. But I think we're definitely starting to click on offense.''
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