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Pitt notebook: Reading keys key for defense

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, 8:03 p.m.
Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill runs the ball against South Alabama during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Mobile, Ala. Oklahoma State won 44-7.
Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill runs the ball against South Alabama during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Mobile, Ala. Oklahoma State won 44-7.

Don't let anyone tell you different: Pitt's defense is moving in the right direction. Just slowly.

After an admittedly small sample size of two games, Pitt is ranked 80th in the nation (237.5 yards per game), compared to 127th (next-to-last) through 13 games of 2016.

But here's the key question: Is it good enough to counter-attack what awaits the Panthers on Saturday?

Linebackers coach Rob Harley said, "There are no easy ones," and there will be no disputing him this week.

No. 9 Oklahoma State comes to Heinz Field sporting the 18th-best passing attack in the nation, averaging 325 yards.

Plus, the ground game features Justice Hill, perhaps the best running back Pitt will face this season.

"He's looking to break the long one, and he can do it," Harley said.

Harley knows playing solid defense involves far more than strength and speed. Pitt has enough of that, probably more than it had last year.

It's seeing and anticipating the offense's keys and ensuring 11 sets of eyes and ears get the message quickly enough to line up properly and react. That's the difficult part.

One presnap foulup, especially against a veteran passing combination (Penn State's Trace McSorley-to-Mike Gesicki or Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph-to-James Washington), leads to trouble.

"See it fast and make sure everybody's got it," linebackers coach Rob Harley said. "Communication is paramount.

"It's not an issue of not being able to do it, just being in the right coverage. We have to do a great job in our one-on-one battles. (But) we have to be in the right coverage first. It starts with that."

Of Pitt's 11 regular starters, nine are doing it for the first time. It's not an excuse for allowing Gesicki to be uncovered — only an explanation and something that needs to be fixed.

Back in the saddle

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson won't punish sophomore Chris Clark for his drop on a big third-down play at Penn State. Watson said Clark remains a big part of Pitt's offense.

"We don't even blink," Watson said. "Just put him back on there and let's roll."

The drop was the first target of Clark's Pitt career, which has started with him sharing the position with graduate transfer Matt Flanagan.

Clark said coach Pat Narduzzi told him, " 'Big players make big-time plays. You have to catch that.' "

"I caught it, but the safety (Marcus Allen) made a good play," Clark said. "Definitely one I should hang onto. In the future, I will."

Clark's career has been slowed by injuries and his transfer from UCLA. He's almost like a 21-year-old freshman. (He'll turn 22 next week.)

"It's a process. I wasn't expecting to be like (the New England Patriots' Rob) Gronkowski my first game," he said.

Winslow for Heisman?

Oklahoma State punter Zach Sinor has become a minor social media star with his Sinor for Heisman campaign that includes T-shirts, brochures that he passed out at Big 12 Media Days and a video.

Pitt punter Ryan Winslow offered Sinor his best.

"Specialists have to get in the limelight somehow," he said.

But Winslow said his Heisman vote would go to "one of those guys making all the touchdowns."

Winslow said he doesn't pay attention to stats, but if he did, he'd know his 42.6-yard average last season wasn't far off Sinor's 42.8.

Sinor has punted only four times this season — a byproduct of an offense that has scored 103 points — but his average is only 38.5, compared to Winslow's 43.3 on seven punts.

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

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