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Pitt's defense must show improvement if it wants to slow Virginia Tech

Jerry DiPaola
| Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:18 p.m.
North Carolina's Jordon Brown seals the the Tar Heels' Nov. 9 victory over Pitt as he gets past Panthers linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu in the fourth quarter.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
North Carolina's Jordon Brown seals the the Tar Heels' Nov. 9 victory over Pitt as he gets past Panthers linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu in the fourth quarter.
Pitt's Bricen Garner breaks up a pass intended for North Carolina's Dazz Newsome in the third quarter Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Bricen Garner breaks up a pass intended for North Carolina's Dazz Newsome in the third quarter Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Alabama running back Damien Harris (34) reacts after a 14-yard touchdown run against Mississippi State in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Alabama won 31-24. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Alabama running back Damien Harris (34) reacts after a 14-yard touchdown run against Mississippi State in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Alabama won 31-24. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Questions about the defense typically are part of any discussion about Pitt.

Is it too young?

No, according to coach Pat Narduzzi, who said his defense “isn't young anymore” after 10 games.

Why isn't it dominant — or nearly so — in Narduzzi's third season, considering his reputation as a defensive whiz?

Coaches are only as good as their players.

Is it getting better?

Now, that's a tough one to answer.

The unit looked to be improving during the last two games of October when Duke and Virginia combined to score 31 points and Pitt achieved its first winning streak of the season.

Then, North Carolina, the ACC Coastal's last-place team, took care of that notion, defeating Pitt, 34-31, last week.

Narduzzi assigned some of the blame to the safety position, which was playing late in the game without Damar Hamlin (presumably injured). Tar Heels quarterback Nathan Elliott and running back Jordan Brown hooked up for a 24-yard gain that helped run out the clock.

“We just didn't get on the guy quick enough for whatever reason,” Narduzzi said.

Admittedly, it was a watered-down version of the defense, playing without Hamlin and cornerback Avonte Maddox (arm). But it did represent a step back from the previous two weeks.

When asked if the defense regressed, junior linebacker Elijah Zeise gave the question careful thought (which is the way he answers most questions from reporters).

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “Just from watching the film, we looked a little bit slower out there. We didn't look like we were fitting things (staying in gaps) as well as we could have been.

“So, from that standpoint, maybe took a step back.”

Asked to explain the cause, Zeise said, “I'm not sure. I think maybe the week off before, a little lackadaisical maybe. (North Carolina) being 1-8 going into it might have factored into it a little bit.” Those are tough lessons to learn in a loss, but Zeise goes to football school, too.

At North Allegheny, he was able to use his athleticism to make plays, but free-lancing — see ball, tackle ball — works in high school, not in the ACC.

“I'm still learning every day,” he said. “I'm getting there.”

Zeise has made progress throughout the season, his first as a starter, and he played perhaps his best game against North Carolina. He recorded two of his five tackles for a loss, his first pass breakup and one of his three quarterback hurries.

“He looked pretty good the other day, right?” Narduzzi said. “Mr. Zeise has played good, which is a little bit more physical in the run. But he's a former wideout, so little by little we'll continue to get him better.”

Improvement from all 11 players will be critical to Pitt's hopes for an upset Saturday at Virginia Tech (7-3, 3-3).

The Hokies have lost two in a row to No. 2 Miami and Georgia Tech, but they can score. In four victories against West Virginia, East Carolina, North Carolina and Old Dominion, Virginia Tech totaled 192 points.

Meanwhile, Pitt's defense is last (14th) in the ACC in yards allowed passing (264.5 yards per game), 12th in total yards (438.6), 11th in scoring defense (28.5) and seventh against the run (150.7).

End James Folston, who has worked his way into the starting lineup the past two games, believes the defense can and will get better.

“We were all just thinking too much, not playing as fast we should have been,” he said. “We'll just keep progressing. We'll be all right.”

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

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