Pitt D-line Is The Key

West Virginia dominated the Pitt football team at the line of scrimmage the past two seasons, and that's why the Mountaineers were able to run up and down the field on the Panthers.

The 100th version of the Backyard Brawl, the annual grudge match between Pittsburgh and WVU, takes place Saturday at 7:45 p.m. at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va. And Pitt is looking for a different outcome.

"I think that we're a different D-line than we were last year,'' Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. "We were playing some guys because there were some injuries that took place, but we're different now. And we're playing pretty good. We just have to continue to do what we've been doing, and we'll be all right. We have to build on our performance last week.

"We kept (South Florida quarterback Matt) Grothe contained, for the most part, and a couple of those sacks were just great tackles by some guys. Last year, we were in position to make plays and just didn't make them. So, I just think we're playing better, and we're more experienced. The talent level that we have, it's starting to show up this year, and we can only get better.''

Pitt's starting defensive line against WVU last season included fifth-year senior Vernon Botts and freshman McKenzie Matthews the ends, while junior Corey Davis and sophomore Gus Mustakas were the tackles. Botts was a career backup, while Matthews had loads of talent but no desire to play and later transferred. Davis was suspended this past spring, and Mustakas was a rising star who was completing his first season as a 255-pound tackle.

John Malecki was a freshman who basically was playing with one arm due to an injury, and Rashaad Duncan did not play much as a sophomore. Duncan and redshirt sophomore Mick Williams are the starting tackles this year, while sophomore Tommie Duhart and Malecki are backups. The starting ends are fifth-year seniors Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop, while redshirt freshman Greg Romeus and frosh Jabaal Sheard are key backups.

"For our team to have a chance to win, our defensive line has to go out and play a really good game,'' Gattuso said. "So, it's going to be a big battle, because WVU has a very good offensive line, and they're very good at what they do. So, we have to counter that by being very good at what we do.

"We've had some looks at that type of offense and have practiced against it, but the bottom line is that they have a lot of talent. There's a lot of good running backs out there in the country, and we face a couple of them in the Big East, but there are very few quarterbacks who can run like Pat White.''

White and WVU tailback Steve Slaton both surpassed the 200-yard rushing mark against Pitt last season, and the Mountaineers have added freshman Ned Devine to the backfield mix. Fullback Owen Schmitt is also a force, so the Panthers will be challenged up front as much as ever.

"We're ready for them, and we're going to go down there to try to play our best game against them,'' Clermond said. "We know it's going to be tough, but the key is not to try to go for the big hit. You just have to get them on the ground the best way that you can. And that's with everybody going to the ball. Gang-tackling will be the key for us to be successful on defense.''

Romeus agreed with the upperclassman.

"We know Pat White's a great player, but there's ways for us to keep him contained,'' Romeus said. "He'll get some yardage, but I think if we keep playing hard we be able to do it. He and Grothe are both explosive players. Maybe White is faster, but they both put pressure on a defense.

"But when we've been successful this season, it's been because we play team defense. Everybody steps up to make plays. And on the D-line, we have a lot of depth this year. And since last year, when everybody talked about how bad we were, it was our motivation to come back this year and play better. So, we worked hard to get better, and we have great coaches and leaders.''

And it all starts up front for the Panthers' defensive unit.

"If our guys want to be a big-time defensive line, this is going to be a great battle for them,'' Gattuso said. "And they've really got to go out and play their best game. Last week, I really thought that one against South Florida was our best performance as a unit in the two years that I've been associated with them. They played very well and made a lot of plays.

"And they were very productive, but we'll certainly have to play just as well or even better this week. We've been getting great pressure, even three-man pressure, and got a couple sacks off it. We blitzed a little more against Rutgers, but the pressure last week came from the guys up front. It'll be tough to tee-off this week. And if you do, they can hurt you with White.''

Gattuso noted that Pitt didn't try to contain Grothe or worry about him running last week. The Panthers just went after him and tried to tackle him.

"And that'll be the plan against White,'' Gattuso said. "So, we'll try to get after him as much as possible, but it's a dangerous plan. Coach (Wannstedt) always says that our guys need to be in the right spot and play with fanatical effort, and that's really what defensive line play is all about and it's really a great way to look at how you have to play defensive line to be successful.''

And if the Panthers can play another good game up front on defense, the Mountaineers certainly shouldn't be as dominant against them this season.

Panther More Top Stories