Paris Ford’s ejection leaves Pitt without key playmaker in secondary
When strong safety Paris Ford was forced to sit out the first half of the Syracuse game last month, Pitt won anyway, 27-20. In an odd twist, the Orange managed only two field goals without Ford on the field, but scored both of its touchdowns after he returned in the second half.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi must push his luck again Saturday at Heinz Field.
Ford, who was ejected for the second time this season after another helmet-to-helmet hit in the Virginia Tech game, is ineligible for the first half of the Boston College game.
When Narduzzi was asked if he discussed the penalty issues with his repeat offender, the coach was very clear with an answer.
“What issues? I don’t think Paris has got any issues,” he said. “I’ll take 25 Paris Fords. He ain’t got any issues.”
After the game, Narduzzi labeled the hit that got Ford ejected “a great tackle.”
But it can’t be argued that the NCAA’s zero tolerance policy on helmet hits has significantly impacted Pitt this season. Free safety Damar Hamlin and outside linebacker Phil Campbell III also were tossed for such hits but did not sit out the first half of the next game because their infractions occurred before halftime.
Narduzzi’s reluctance to discuss the issue publicly is not a surprise, but the bigger shock would be if he has not addressed it with his team. The subject probably came up a time or two this week.
Pitt can’t afford to keep losing key members of the nation’s ninth-ranked defense, especially when penalties of all sorts have been a particular problem for the Panthers. Pitt has committed 94; only Syracuse, Tulsa, Florida State and Cincinnati have been flagged more often.
Ford’s absence might hurt a little more than it did at Syracuse, with Boston College running back A.J. Dillon, No. 3 in the nation with 1,507 yards, coming to town.
No matter how the Syracuse game turned out, Pitt doesn’t want to play any opponent without Ford. He might be the best defensive back in the ACC, with statistics that surpass those of the three national finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award — LSU’s Grant Delpit, Georgia’s J.R. Reed and Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah.
— LaMont Wade 🦍 (@Goony_38) November 26, 2019
Ford, a redshirt sophomore, leads the Panthers in tackles by a wide margin (82 to 62 for runner-up Damar Hamlin) and is No. 1 among all ACC underclassmen.
He’s also forced three fumbles (seventh in the nation), defended 14 passes (10th) and intercepted three of them (one for a touchdown).
Meanwhile, Delpit, Reed and Okudah have recorded only 28, 25 and 20 tackles, with significantly fewer passes defended (six, six and seven).
Deserving of National Attention ⭐
Pitt sophomore Paris Ford has impacted games as much as any defensive back in the nation this season.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) November 26, 2019
Pitt’s defense is populated with several important players, including cornerback Dane Jackson, who has 11 pass breakups, and linemen Jaylen Twyman and Patrick Jones II, who have combined for a total of 18 sacks.
But Ford brings energy and constant conversation that keep teammates alert and aggressive. What’s amazing is that Ford has improved so much in his only season as a starter.
Ford and Campbell were named the most improved defensive players in spring drills this year when Narduzzi said of Ford, “He’s always been fast, he’s always been physical, and he’s always been a playmaker.” He carried that into the season.
By rule, the 6-foot, 190-pound Steel Valley graduate can enter the 2020 NFL Draft because he’s been out of high school three years. That’s an issue for another day, however.
For now, Pitt must figure a way to win with its play-making safety only playing the second half.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .