Without a turnover or two, Pitt’s upset hopes diminish | TribLIVE.com

Without a turnover or two, Pitt’s upset hopes diminish

Jerry DiPaola
Pitt’s Damar Hamlin (3) celebrates Therran Coleman’s interception against Syracuse in overtime to ice the game Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Upsets are built on turnovers, and that’s the one aspect of its game Pitt has yet to master.

Or, even experience.

Despite repeated drill work in practice and coaches nagging their players to attack the football, Pitt hasn’t had a fumble recovery or interception since the final seconds of the third quarter against Miami on Nov. 24, 2018. Senior defensive tackle Shane Roy recovered Miami running back Cam’Ron Davis’ fumble, one of two that day by Pitt in a 24-3 loss.

Since then, Pitt opponents have snapped the ball 263 times in 17 quarters (four games and one quarter-plus) without offering up a gift. Pitt is one of only four Power 5 teams (Texas Tech, Iowa State and No. 23 Washington are the others) that hasn’t forced a turnover. Of course, getting one — or even eight — does not guarantee success. Arizona has forced a nation-high eight turnovers while giving up 86 points in two games.

To be fair and provide a full picture of what Pitt’s defense has accomplished, Ohio was forced last week to punt 10 times (which can be defined as turnovers at the offense’s discretion). Four of those punts occurred after Ohio lost yardage and was unable to record a first down.

The lack of turnovers is a shame on another level. Before the season, senior defensive tackle Amir Watts promised a secret display similar to Miami’s turnover chain when the defense takes the ball from the offense.

“We’re putting together a way to give the defense more juice,” Watts said. “I don’t want to say. But for turnovers, forced fumbles, interceptions, any of that third down, money down (splash plays), we got a little surprise for the fans.”

The mystery lives.

Turnovers change the flow of a game, rile up the home crowd and sometimes can flip the field. Pitt might not have upset eventual national champion Clemson in Death Valley three years ago without freshman linebacker Saleem Brightwell’s interception of Deshaun Watson on the goal line and subsequent 70-yard return. Pitt picked off Watson three times that day.

A year later, Pitt was in the process of ruining No. 2 Miami’s undefeated season. But the Hurricanes cut the lead to 24-14 and recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarterback. A turnover nailed down the Pitt victory, however, when cornerback Avonte Maddox stripped the ball from quarterback Malik Rosier, and Dewayne Hendrix recovered the fumble.

Game over.

Turnovers also can mask a deficient defensive effort. Pitt gave up 37 points to Syracuse last season but nailed down a 44-37 overtime victory when Therran Coleman intercepted a pass in the end zone, one of three turnovers by the Orange.

And Ryan Lewis forever will live in Pitt-Penn State lore for his interception in the end zone in the final moments of the Panthers’ 42-39 victory in 2016.

Which brings up the subject of Pitt’s game against No. 13 Penn State on Saturday in Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions are 17-point favorites.

If Pitt allows Penn State to control the ball, the game could get out of hand quickly. If Pitt forces the Nittany Lions out of their rhythm by taking the ball away, the Panthers have a chance at another upset.

Penn State has committed two turnovers in two games, but they turned out to be inconsequential while the Lions outscored Idaho and Buffalo, 124-20.

In Penn State’s first series of the second half of the Buffalo game last week, running back Ricky Slade lost a fumble on the Bulls’ 27.

Didn’t matter.

Three plays later, Penn State’s John Reid, who joins Tariq Castro-Fields in forming perhaps the best cornerback duo in the Big Ten, returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown. All of a sudden, a 10-7 deficit turned into a 14-10 Penn State lead on the way to a 45-13 victory and a slight bump in national relevancy. With the victory, Penn State moved from No. 15 to No. 13 in the Associated Press poll.

Although Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett threw two interceptions in the loss to Virginia, the Panthers committed no turnovers in the Ohio victory. Pitt, which has forced three fumbles without recovering them, nearly had a pick-6.

Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Devin Danielson, the Thomas Jefferson grad who has been named a co-starter with Watts, hurried quarterback Nathan Rourke into an ill-advised throw from the Bobcats’ 8 in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Cam Bright and cornerback Dane Jackson bumped into each other going for the ball, or one of them would have had the interception.

“We had an opportunity to get some turnovers, which was disappointing,” coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Don’t like that. We got a chance for a pick-6 that we don’t get.”

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Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Pitt
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