The lost story against Michigan State was that, for the first time under Dave Wannstedt and the first time in a long time, Pitt’s defensive line was dominant.
The Panthers held the backfield duo of Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer to a combined 163 yards rushing on 41 carries, well below their average of 220. They stopped the Spartans twice on fourth-and-short, 11 times on third down and gave up less total yards (327) to Michigan State this season than they did rushing yards (335) last season.
The secret to Pitt’s success?
“Playing hard,” Wannstedt said. “No secrets.”
Wannstedt was quick to add that Pitt has some talent in its front four and that depth made the difference.
That was the case first with redshirt sophomore Mick Williams replacing junior Gus Mustakas at defensive tackle, and then redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Romeus (Chris McKillop) and sophomore nose guard John Malecki (Rashaad Duncan), respectively, filling in for starters who left the game with unspecified injuries.
Pitt also got a strong game from redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Tommie Duhart, who had three tackles and blocked a field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
“That’s what the good teams have,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got to get that where we have it at all positions and you’re not jumping to a true freshman, you’re jumping to some kid who has been in the system for a few years and can step in and get you through a ballgame.”
That Pitt’s defensive line went from weakness to strength so quickly, despite losing Mustakas to a season-ending knee injury, is a credit to defensive line coach Greg Gattuso and his stressing of fundamentals.
“It comes from the work coach Gattuso is having us do, getting off the ball and getting off the block. That’s become a real big emphasis that he has. He always focuses on the technique. That’s really what’s helped us play a lot faster now. The play-calling by coach (Paul) Rhoads always seemed to be right on time for what was going on.”
Gattuso revealed his confidence in his front four last week when asked about playing against Michigan State’s big, physical offensive line by saying that his players were looking forward to mixing it up with the Spartans.
“As the game went on and we saw how physical a defense we could be, we got quite physical,” fifth-year senior defensive end Joe Clermond said. “We met our goals. We were able to come out and stop the run and be aggressive and hold down our assignments.”
Clermond benefited greatly, finishing with nine tackles, including one sack for a 5-yard loss and joining in on another stop for a loss. Last year, Clermond’s play dipped at the end of the season when he had to play nearly every snap because Pitt didn’t have a dependable backup.
“It shows that everyone is focused and ready to go,” Clermond said. “It shows that everyone is dedicated to being a good defense. The guys coming in and filling those spots for the guys coming out of the game, they showed they can basically play like no one has ever left the field. It was good to see that we had depth and that we could depend on everybody to come out and play.”
* If you were wondering why every time a Pitt defensive lineman crossed his arms above his head after making a stop, it was their silent tribute to Mustakas.
“As a front, we came out and dedicated the game to Gus,” Clermond said. “Every time we made a play, we were throwing up the ‘X.’ That’s usually Gus’ thing. We were just showing him some love, that we appreciate everything he did. He’s still influencing us by the way he’s recovering and trying to support us while we’re out there playing.”
• With Pitt playing Connecticut Saturday at Heinz Field, Clermond was asked if he would like to see Huskies quarterback-turned-receiver D.J. Hernandez take a reverse.
Hernandez, after all, passed for 164 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 130 in a 46-45 double-overtime victory over Pitt last season, and eluded Clermond on the game-winning two-point conversion run.
“I guess you could say that, just from having a competitive edge and wanting to compete and get after guys, especially after last season,” Clermond said. “We have a lot of things we want to do. As long as we come out and play mad-dog defense, I’ll be satisfied with that.”
• LaRod Stephens-Howling returned to practice Tuesday, and it will be interesting to see where the junior from Johnstown will line up against UConn.
“We’re going to practice with him and Shady,” Wannstedt said. “As the week goes on, I want to see where LaRod’s at, health-wise, and then make a determination on how much we’re going to use him. That will determine a lot of the game plan.”
Wannstedt said that Stephens-Howling can take direct snaps from center the way LeSean McCoy did against Michigan State, so it’s possible they will be in the backfield together when the Panthers use their Wildcat package.
The offensive linemen like the idea.
“I think it’s a good package because you never seen us take a center snap right to the running back,” left guard C.J. Davis said. “I think that took Michigan State off a little bit. I think we’re going to use it a lot more.”
• That’s not to say the linemen have lost confidence in redshirt freshman quarterback Kevan Smith, despite his obvious struggles against Michigan State.
“With Kevan Smith, there’s really a lot of pressure on us to protect our new quarterback,” Davis said. “I feel like, every week, it’s on us in the first place. I don’t care who’s back there, whether it’s Bill (Stull), (Pat) Bostick or Kevan. We’ve just got to protect.
“I trust Kevan Smith to do what he has to do … Everything didn’t iron for him the way he wanted to, but it will come with time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just keep working out with him and I feel he’ll step up to the plate and help us win football games.”
• Offensive line coach Paul Dunn said Pitt’s problems with pass protection stem from situations where the defense knew the Panthers were going to throw the ball. That rationale explains why three of Michigan State’s five sacks came when Pitt was in its two-minute offense at the end of both halves.
“Any level you get to, when the defense has the upper edge is when they know you have to throw the ball,” Dunn said. “If there’s no threat of the run, it makes it easier to tee off.”
• Then again, sometimes the line is only as good as the player(s) they are blocking for.
When asked about the Panthers blocking for McCoy, Dunn recalled Dan Marino’s dubious debut in 1979.
“I can remember as a player, Marino’s first time in a ballgame, he ended up throwing an interception on his first pass. His second should have been intercepted. The third one was a touchdown – as a true freshman,” Dunn said. “It just depends on the guy you’ve got back there. That can make up for some mistakes.”
• Sophomore Jovani Chappel has been moved from strong safety to boundary cornerback, where he is listed as a backup to fifth-year senior Kennard Cox.
Wannstedt said the move was made more for the immediate than the future, and it’s a possible indication that redshirt sophomore Irv Brown (chest) is ready to play.
“He’s really our dime and special-teams guy,” Wannstedt said of Chappel. “Jovani can play safety. He’s a smart guy that gives us a little versatility.”
• Wannstedt likened the development of the offensive line, which has new starters in center Chris Vangas and right tackle Jason Pinkston and a fifth-year senior learning a new position in right guard Mike McGlynn, to that of a child going from infant to toddler.
“I think we’ve gotten a little better,” Wannstedt said. “We’re not running yet, but we started to walk a little last week. We came out of the shoot against Eastern Michigan crawling. We’re walking now. We’ve got to get to the point where we’re moving at full speed with everything we’re doing.”