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Pitt wants 'cleaner' game from defense

| Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
Pitt's Jason Hendricks makes a diving tackle of Buffalo's Devon Hughes during the second half in Amherst, N.Y. on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. (AP)

If you just look at the final scores, you might be swayed into thinking the Pitt defense has been dominant in most recent games.

You would be wrong.

It's true that Pitt has allowed a total of only three touchdowns in four of the past five games, with the 45-35 loss to Louisville a significant exception.

But defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable sees a bigger picture. Such as:

• Quarterbacks shaking loose from a pass rush that has produced only 13 sacks.

• Missed tackles and botched assignments from a unit that entered the season with inexperience at key spots.

• The opponents' third-down conversion rate of 45 percent that is 96th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

“We didn't play too bad last week,” Huxtable said of the 20-6 victory over Buffalo that was the second game this season in which Pitt did not allow a touchdown. “But we want to play a cleaner game. I don't feel like we've had a clean game the way we want it to be.”

Among the problems has been the inability to contain mobile quarterbacks, a problem that could resurface Saturday at Heinz Field against Temple. Owls quarterback Chris Coyer is second on the team and 10th in the Big East in rushing with 332 yards. Pitt had trouble containing Cincinnati's Munchie Legaux (117) and Buffalo's Alex Zordich (79).

“The big thing is we lost contain on the quarterback too much,” Huxtable said. “That ties in with being disciplined in your rush lanes. You can't rush blind.”

Huxtable is hoping to get more production from his ends, but T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy are first-year starters.

“This is definitely new to me,” said Clemmings, a talented redshirt sophomore at 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds who didn't play football until his junior year of high school. “I'm still learning. It's definitely more mental than physical.”

Huxtable said backup end Devin Cook, a redshirt freshman who leads the team with two forced fumbles but hasn't played recently, could return to the rotation.

Meanwhile, the return of linebacker Todd Thomas to the lineup will help, but it may take some time for him to round into shape after he missed the entire spring and summer while recovering from knee surgery.

Thomas, who played the weak side for the first time, had 11 tackles against Buffalo but paid the price.

“Todd really played hard,” Huxtable said. “He made some mistakes. He missed a few tackles. Like Todd said to me, ‘Coach, my legs are killing me.' It's camp for him.”

Thomas said he gets inspiration from middle linebacker Dan Mason, who is recovering from a devastating knee injury.

“I'm at practice,” Thomas said, “and I'm like, ‘My legs (are hurting).'

“Dan says, ‘C'mon, we gotta work, we gotta work. We have business to take care of.' ”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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