Pitt coaches hope to cook up more turnovers, but defense isn’t suffering
Anybody wondering how much emphasis Pitt’s defensive coaches place on gaining turnovers should watch practice.
Most of the time spent there is not for public eyes, but safeties coach Cory Sanders offered a glimpse Tuesday.
When the football is in the air and a defender so much as lets it graze his hand without catching it, that’s as bad as a drop, he said.
“If it touches your hand, you might as well go do 10 pushups right now,” Sanders said. “We harp on it daily. We harp on it in the film room.”
Even when a wide receiver misses a pass and it falls to the ground incomplete, it doesn’t matter. Somebody better jump on it.
“Go get that ball,” Sanders said he instructs his players. “We call that loose change. If the ball’s on the ground, it’s ours.
“We make that a strong point of emphasis.”
And when one player suffers, everyone suffers.
“If you don’t get interceptions, you do pushups and they do that as a group,” Sanders said.
All those punitive measures did pay off Sept. 21 in the victory against Central Florida when linebacker Phil Campbell III and cornerback Jason Pinnock intercepted passes in Pitt’s 35-34 victory. Without those big plays, the Pitt Special wouldn’t have been enough to win the game.
But in four of Pitt’s five games, the Panthers have zero turnovers. Pitt has forced five fumbles without recovering one.
Every FBS team has at least two turnovers. Mississippi State leads the nation with 14. But Ohio, Pitt, Purdue, UNLV and Kansas are tied for last among 130 FBS schools with two. Pitt (3-2) is the only one in the group with a winning record.
As a result, 10 of Pitt’s 12 touchdowns have come at the end of drives between 62 and 90 yards. It’s a reality Sanders hopes to reverse.
“Everybody likes a short field, right?” he said.
Even without the turnovers, Pitt’s defense has been the team’s strongest and most consistent group this season.
Pitt is in the top 50 in the nation in scoring defense (38th, 21 points per game), run (17th, 91.8 yards), pass (48th, 209) and pass efficiency defense (31st, 116.8). And that’s with three ranked teams among the first five opponents: No. 12 Penn State, No. 18 UCF and No. 23 Virginia.
Pitt drops the main man with the football, the opposing quarterback, about one in every eight times he wants to pass. Opponents are completing less than 54% of their pass attempts while getting sacked 24 times. No quarterback likes to be chased from his comfort zone, and 15 Pitt players have been credited with 31 hurries.
The football isn’t squirting free, but the receivers aren’t getting open, either.
“Their first and second reads weren’t there,” Sanders said, “and by that time, you better block our D-linemen or they’re going to be on you. Those guys up front, they are playing with great fundamentals, technique and getting after those O-linemen and quarterbacks.
“I think (the defensive backs) have done a good job downfield just continuing to get better with our eyes and technique. I thought we did pretty good last week, when the quarterback broke the pocket, of just locking on downfield, making sure we’re staying with our wide receivers.”
Coach Pat Narduzzi has worked nearly five years to build a veteran defense. The results are starting to show just in time, with seven ACC games left on the schedule, starting Saturday night at Duke.
Pitt’s secondary features several experienced hands, including seniors Dane Jackson and Damar Hamlin (a total of 56 starts) and juniors Damarris Mathis, Pinnock and Therran Coleman. There was enough solid depth there, even when redshirt freshman Erick Hallett was on the field, that the loss of the injured Pinnock last week was barely felt.
“We feel pretty comfortable out there,” Jackson said. “Even (safety Paris Ford), he’s been a baller his whole life.
“We’re all experienced. We’re all just out there having fun.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .