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Pitt's defense better, still room for improvement

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, 6:42 p.m.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) scrambles against Pitt in the second quarter on Saturday Sept. 09, 2017 at Beaver Stadium.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) scrambles against Pitt in the second quarter on Saturday Sept. 09, 2017 at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) is stopped at the line of scrimmage by Pitt defensive lineman Kam Carter (5) in the second quarter on Saturday Sept. 09, 2017 at Beaver Stadium.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) is stopped at the line of scrimmage by Pitt defensive lineman Kam Carter (5) in the second quarter on Saturday Sept. 09, 2017 at Beaver Stadium.
Pitt defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix (8) sacks Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) in the second quarter on Saturday Sept. 09, 2017 at Beaver Stadium.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Pitt defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix (8) sacks Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) in the second quarter on Saturday Sept. 09, 2017 at Beaver Stadium.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley recorded no run longer than 22 yards, indicating Pitt limited his explosive, Heisman-highlight type plays.

But he averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored on a 46-yard catch-and-run play that Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said was expected and practiced during the week.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw for only 164 yards. Pitt's two quarterbacks totaled 23 more than that. But who was covering tight end Mike Gesicki on his two touchdown catches? Seemingly, no one.

Of Penn State's 15 receptions, eight came from Barkley and Gesicki. Where were the Pitt linebackers, a group that stood out during training camp, when it counted?

Narduzzi was not especially pleased with his front seven after a quick analysis 15 minutes following a 33-14 loss to Penn State on Saturday.

“Based on the stats, they rushed for 148 yards, which is not as good as we need to (be),” he said.

Narduzzi pointed to a power read play where Barkley, perhaps the nation's best running back, outran defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, perhaps Pitt's best defensive lineman, to the edge.

“Somehow, we need to clean that up because we are normally really good on those plays, but I don't think they were really reading it (Saturday),” he said.

Pitt's defense had its shining moments, particularly in the second quarter when the Nittany Lions were held without a point. For the first time in nine games, Penn State failed to reach 38 points. If you noticed Pitt's 24-14 edge in first downs, you would have thought the final score would be closer.

Don't forget the stat coaches and players don't discuss: Penn State did not cover the 22-point betting line.

And who would have guessed Penn State would punt more times (six) than Pitt (five)?

Actually, the punt was one of Penn State's best weapons. Punter Blake Gillikin averaged 43.2 — just below the average compiled by Pitt's Ryan Winslow (44.4) — but Gillikin dropped four inside the 20-yard line.

No. 5 Penn State put Pitt's poor field position to good use, recording five sacks and three turnovers. In fact, for a long time, Penn State looked like it might become the first team since SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl six seasons ago to hold Pitt without a touchdown. Quarterback Ben DiNucci finally crossed the goal line four minutes, 51 seconds into the fourth quarter.

Narduzzi has problems to shore up on both sides of the football — he already moved to quell the quarterback debate by telling reporters Max Browne remains the starter — but his defense has allowed seven touchdowns in the first two games. It's an improvement over last year's average of 4.5 per game but still not good enough.

It's unfair to judge Browne after two games, so the same consideration should be shown the defense. For the record, Pitt is ranked 67th in the nation in total yards allowed (11th in the ACC), and 55th against the run (Narduzzi's specialty).

But not everyone has played a top-five team.

It's the pass defense Pitt must worry about this week, with Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, No. 10 in the nation in passing efficiency at 230.63, coming to town. The No. 9 Cowboys (2-0) have scored 103 points in victories against Tulsa and South Alabama.

Nonconference games are important for a team seeking national relevancy and a spot in the weekly rankings, but senior Avonte Maddox is smart enough to understand good teams can recover from adversity in time for what really matters. Pitt opens ACC play Sept. 23 at Georgia Tech.

“Of course, it hurts,” he said. “But we're on to next week. We still have a chance to win the ACC championship, and that's our goal. We're going to learn from our mistakes.”

Notes: Hendrix recorded Pitt's only sack. Pitt has only two sacks in two games. … Clairton's Lamont Wade, played a reserve role at safety and recorded two tackles. … Running back Qadree Ollison has back-to-back games of 91 and 96 yards rushing. … Michael Shuster, the grandson of longtime Steelers assistant Dick Hoak, is a backup quarterback with the Nittany Lions.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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