At the halfway point this season for Pittsburgh, which is 2-4 after four straight losses, the defense that stood tall at MSU looks nothing like the unit that has given up 42 points per game in the last three contests.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and his staff had 10 days following the loss at Virginia to prepare for the triple-option offense run by Navy, but the result was unimpressive and highly unsuccessful. The Midshipmen gutted Pitt's defense for almost 500 offensive yards, including more than 300 on the ground, en route to the Panthers' 48-45 double-overtime loss.
"I was very confident,'' Wannstedt said about the prospect of facing Navy's offense. "We spent more than 10 days preparing. We spent some time in the summer talking to different people about this offense.''
It looked like Pitt could have practiced another month and not been able to stop the Midshipmen.
"We knew they liked to run the ball but we also knew that they have the ability to pass the ball,'' junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "They're exactly what we thought they would be. It's tough when you don't see an offense like that all the time.''
McKillop is the Big East leader in tackles and is rated seventh nationally. Even with those lofty rankings, he said there is room to improve and that he has to be a commander on the field.
"I hold myself personally responsible for our defense,'' McKillop said. "I need to get everyone out there and set my game up. I have to play better and lead by example.''
Despite McKillop's success, a unit that was once ranked in the top 10 in several defensive categories has sunk with every game. The result has been for fans to find fault with defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads' scheme. Rhoads, in his eighth year at Pitt, has come under intense scrutiny since Wannstedt's first season for fielding defenses that have been unable to stop or even contain opponents' running games.
Under Rhoads, Pitt's defenses have given up more than 146 yards per game on the ground and were ranked in the NCAA's top 20 just once, 17th in his first season as the defensive coordinator. The defense has ranked as high as No. 2 against the pass, but that's mainly because teams have not had to throw the ball in order to put up points against the Panthers.
What has been frustrating for those following the program is that Rhoads appears to make little to no adjustments to his scheme, even when it clearly is not working. Against Navy, an attacking defense might have been a better option, but the Panthers just read and reacted all night. That led to the Midshipmen gaining 5-6 yards on each run.
When asked if the defensive scheme was the issue, redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Shane Murray said it was the players who have to make plays, and that the nature of Navy's offense caused more problems than usual.
"The coaches do a great job every week of preparing us to play,'' Murray said, "so ... it's not the scheme. It's the players. Most of the teams we play run pro-style offenses, so we really don't get to see the option that much.
"It is hard to adjust to when you play (pro-style offenses) week after week and then one game comes, and you have to throw out your whole game plan.''
At least for now, however, it doesn't appear that the Panthers will make any changes to their defensive scheme or from a personnel standpoint. When asked if he would look at his defensive coaching staff more closely now, Wannstedt deflected it.
"No, we're going to take a good look at the Cincinnati film,'' Wannstedt said. "That's what we're going to look at.''
Wannstedt and his staff have another 10-day period before taking on the Bearcats, and that might not be a good thing. Cincinnati is undefeated and among the Big East's top teams right now.
And Wannstedt is just 2-8 now with more than one week to prepare for a game during two-plus seasons at Pitt.
Pitt Defense Needs To Step Up
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