PITTSBURGH – It’s no secret Pitt’s defense has been the strength of the team this year. The Panthers (7-4, 4-3) enter their regular season finale against Boston College (5-6, 3-4) with the ninth-ranked defense in the country as the unit is allowing just 294.8 yards per game. Statistically, it’s the best defense the Panthers have fielded since 2001.
The fast and physical Pitt defense will have its hands full against Eagles running back A.J. Dillon. The 6-foot, 250-pound tailback has amassed 1,507 yards this season, the third best mark in the country.
“He's a Hoss,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said of Dillon. “He's an NFL guy. I assume leaving this year, I don't know. That's what all the draft predictors are, and he's a load. He's the third leading rusher in the country for a reason – he's physical.”
Dillon has led the way as the Eagles have become one of the best rushing units in the country, averaging 268.2 yards per game.
Narduzzi, a former defensive coordinator, is looking forward to the challenge presented by an “old-school” power run game. He said earlier in the week he planned on being present frequently in defensive meetings leading up to Saturday’s game.
“I can't wait to go on the defense,” Narduzzi said. “I'm the old-school guy, like I'm the old guy. Some of the new stuff, spread stuff they feel like they're really good at defensively, and again, I'm in there all the time. But it'll be fun to go in there today because it's old school.”
Stopping Dillon and backup David Bailey – who has 791 rushing yards himself – won’t be an easy task, even for the nation’s sixth-ranked run defense.
“These types of games are pretty fun for the D-line, because it’s a lot of run,” senior defensive tackle Amir Watts said of facing such a potent rushing attack.
“You want that challenge.”
The Eagles have been a force on offense this season, but their defense has been another story. They have the third worst defense in college football, allowing 488.2 yards per game.
It could be just what the doctor ordered for Pitt’s offense, which failed to score against Virginia Tech a week ago. The offense posted a season-low 177 yards against the Hokies as quarterback Kenny Pickett completed just 39 percent of his passes. Pickett again didn’t have a ton of help as his receivers continued to drop balls, including on the first four passes of the game.
“We just never got in a rhythm, and I think it's happened a couple times this year, just didn't get in a rhythm,” Narduzzi said. “We dropped the first four passes, and nobody can catch fire, and it's hard as a play caller when it's three-and-out.”
It remains to be seen whether Pitt will have one of its best offensive weapons available on Saturday. Senior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, who leads the Panthers with 75 receptions, has missed the last two games after suffering a broken jaw against Georgia Tech. Narduzzi said Ffrench will be a game-time decision, but he’d like Ffrench to see the field on senior day.
The coach admitted he was sad as he reflected on the 14 seniors who will play their final game at Heinz Field on Saturday.
“The memories will last forever that you have with these guys, and that's the fun thing,” Narduzzi said. “There's good memories and bad memories, and there's memories we have in here that we've failed and we've won and we've succeeded. But it's all the things that we do in here together as a football team that's key, and it's not all about winning and losing.
“It's those relationships that will last forever, and hopefully these guys feel the same way, and they'll be coming back forever thinking and talking about Pitt football.”