Can Pitt's Defense Turn Things Around?

There have been worse performances by Pitt's defense during the Dave Wannstedt Era, the 2006 home game when West Virginia rolled to more than 600 yards in total offense, but the Panthers rarely stopped WVU in that game and eventually were overwhelmed in the second half.

The story was different for Pitt at North Carolina State this past Saturday, as the Panthers held a 31-17 advantage late in the third quarter. But four second-half touchdowns by the Wolfpack and three scores on its final four drives turned it into a 38-31 N.C. State win.

The Pittsburgh defense allowed 530 total yards against the Wolfpack, the second time in the past three games that the opposition has reached the 500 mark, and that's just not going to get the job done for a unit believed to be among the nation's best going into this season.

Pitt (3-1) has a short week to get back on track with its Big East opener at Louisville (1-2) Friday at 8 p.m. in an ESPN 2 national telecast.

"I would sum it up this way,'' Wannstedt said. "I would give (N.C. State quarterback) Russell Wilson a lot of credit on the front end. We played Pat White, who I consider to be the best option athletic quarterback maybe of all time, and we handled him when we knew he was going to run the ball. We at least slowed him down. All of Wilson's runs, (were) all on his own.

"They were not designed runs. He tucked the ball and outran us. Obviously, we didn't do a good job of coaching and didn't do enough executing to contain him. He was sacked 11 times coming into our ball game and he was not scrambling. He was throwing the ball. In our game, he made up his mind that he was going to run the ball. And run he did. To me, that was the difference.

"We had guys free on blitzes, and he throws up jump balls,'' Wannstedt added. "They made the plays, and we didn't. Three times we had guys standing there. We weren't beat. Aaron Berry wasn't beaten in the end zone. Elijah Fields wasn't beaten. Greg Williams wasn't beaten. These are all 20-plus yard plays, where the ball was in the air, and we just didn't come down with it.''

Wannstedt noted that the only personnel change this week would be if sixth-year middle linebacker Adam Gunn is able to play after missing the past two games with a sprained ankle. If Gunn can go, he likely will start ahead of Dan Mason, but the freshman would still get some playing time.

Mason and redshirt sophomore outside linebackers Max Gruder and Greg Williams struggled to contain Wilson's scrambles, and Pitt's secondary had difficulty stopping his passes. But fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas believed the Panthers' D-line was just as culpable.

"We gave up so many big plays that it's unbelievable,'' Mustakas said. "Big runs and big pass plays, and most of them were on third down or even fourth down. And we also committed penalties to help them keep the drive going. ... There's a lot of little things like not wrapping up tackles, running off the field, staying focused and not getting turnovers when we have a chance.

"We need to do all those in practice going into a game, and then we'll be able to do it in a game. Some things are difficult to simulate in practice, but not those little things. Penalties and mental mistakes. We take that upon ourselves as a defense to turn things around quickly, and I can tell you that I'm going to do my best to make sure it doesn't happen any more.''

Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said earlier this season that this defense hadn't accomplished anything and didn't deserve the accolades it received in the preseason. Clearly, he was correct. But Mustakas believed an elite status was still attainable with a quick turnaround this season.

"Coming into the year, we were looked at as being one of the best defenses in the country and one of the best D-lines in the country,'' Mustakas said. "I can still see us getting there, but we have to stop the big plays. We've let way too many big plays happen. But the good thing is that we can do it.

"It's not impossible for us to correct the mistakes leading to the mental errors and big plays. It all starts today in practice, and I know we can change it. The coaches have told us about it, and we've seen it on tape. Now, we have to go out on the field and perform the way we know we can perform.''

While it's difficult to take a loss as a learning experience, the Panthers must look at it that way and move on to Louisville. Wannstedt said Pitt didn't appear to be playing fast in the fourth quarter, which is amazing since it won a handful of games during that time last season and rarely was outplayed at the end.

"Our offense did a good job,'' Mustakas said. "We put 31 points up on the board, but it's unacceptable for us to give up 38 points with touchdowns allowed on three straight drives in the final four drives of the game. ... We prided ourselves on finishing strong, and we pretty much did that in every game last year. But we haven't done that this year.

"So, we need to keep practicing hard, and maybe we can get back to the point where we're considered the best defense in the Big East again. It won't happen unless we stop making the mental mistakes and the penalties. I believe we can do it, but it has to be through hard work and hustle on and off the field. You'll see a big turnaround, I promise you that.''

And with its next game just four days away, it better happen quickly for Pitt.

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