As soon as Pat Narduzzi was announced as the new head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh, many wondered exactly how long it would take until the Pitt defense resembled that of which he oversaw at Michigan State.
Judging by the season opener when Youngstown State stayed in the game by hitting numerous big plays on the Panthers, things looked like it could take long while to come to fruition. But in the three games that have followed, the Panthers have bought into what Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin have been selling and very quickly things have turned around from the product former defensive coordinator Matt House was running out there.
Something happened last Saturday against Virginia Tech that offered up just a glimpse of where the Pitt defense could under the tutelage of Conklin and Narduzzi.
That something was a dominant performance to the likes of only 100 total yards allowed, three forced turnovers and countless sacks as the Panthers turned in one of their most dominant performances on the defensive side of the ball in quite some time.
But despite that effort, Conklin knows this unit still has a long way to go as the Panthers have a lot to correct as they prepare to host Virginia on Saturday.
“I was proud of the effort,” said Conklin. “Were we happy? Absolutely. It was a dominating performance. But we continue to challenge them every week and they are buying in. There’s still a lot to be cleaned up and a lot to be corrected.”
When the Panthers host a struggling Cavaliers team, Conklin to see even more from his unit.
“It’s looking the way we want it to look,” said Conklin. “But we can be faster and play more aggressive, especially on the perimeter. We need to be sharper with our execution.”
While that may be true, and it has been only four games, it’s hard not to notice the difference in attitude on this Pitt defense and the numbers have been there so far.
After dominating the Hokies, to the point of holding Virginia Tech to nine total rushing yards, the Panthers enter this weekend ranked fourth nationally in total defense (243.8 yards per game), fourth in rushing defense (71.25 ypg) and fourth in sack efficiency (12.2 percent).
To put things in perspective, last year Pitt ranked 33rd, 54th and 95th in each of those respective categories.
“I’m aware of it,” added Conklin. “It’s good for our guys to see that ranking. But it is not about what we have done in the past, it is about what we can do this upcoming week.”
A big part of the early success the Pitt defense has had is largely due to the ability of the Panthers to get to the quarterback. Pitt already has 17 sacks as a team on the season. Last year they racked up only 19 for the entire season.
One thing that was a pleasant sight against the Hokies was the performance of Ejuan Price.
Price had missed most of the past three seasons because of injury and looked like the player who had a breakout season as a freshman back in 2011.
Since then he missed the 2012 season with a pectoral injury, played six games in 2013 before suffering a back injury and then missed all of last season after suffering a chest muscle injury.
“I feel like I have been here for so long, but I haven’t played a lot of football,” Price said.
If he does anything like he did on Saturday in which he sacked Hokies quarterback Brenden Motley twice and totaled 3.5 tackles for a loss, it is going to be hard to keep him off the field.
Of Pitt’s 17 sacks on the season, Price leads all Panthers with three.
“It lifted a load off my shoulders,” Price said about his performance against Virginia Tech. “The first couple of games I put so much pressure on myself to perform and would get down on myself. Last week I just let things come to me and trusted the scheme.”
As the Panthers move forward, there are things defensively that they want to see. For starters they would like to see more players making an impact. Conklin isn’t afraid to throw people in the game regardless of whether they are a freshman or senior.
“We don’t want to play 12 or 13 guys,” said Conklin. ‘Ideally we would like to play 25 or 26. But you have to earn that playing time.”
As the Panthers continue on in the season, realistically no one knows how this defense will perform as they need to get by Virginia before they start looking down the road.
But Conklin has one goal in mind and won’t stop working until Pitt reaches it.
“We want to win an ACC championship,” he said. “We want to have an ACC championship caliber defense. We have a lot of work to do to get there.”
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