Delaware Pittsburgh Football

Pitt defensive lineman Patrick Jones II and defensive back Damar Hamlin celebrate a stop in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Delaware Saturday, Sept. 28 2019, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

PITTSBURGH – One thing that has stood out about Pitt football this season has been the play of the defense. It’s shaping up to be the best defense at Pitt in the five-year tenure of coach Pat Narduzzi, a former defensive coordinator who was known for his top-10 defenses at Michigan State.

Currently, Pitt’s defense ranks second nationally and first in the ACC in sacks; eighth in the country and first in the conference in tackles for loss; and standout defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman ranks sixth nationally and first in the ACC in sacks.

Narduzzi has been reluctant to praise the defense, saying he doesn’t care about statistics.

“I don't ever go sit in a staff meeting, pull the stats up, and go look, guys, we're No. 1 here, we're No. 88 here,” Narduzzi said this week.

Narduzzi is also reluctant to take credit for the defense, saying the credit belongs elsewhere.

“Our defensive staff and Randy Bates have done a tremendous job,” Narduzzi said. “They've done a great job game planning, putting our kids in position to make plays.”

Pitt’s defense is tied for 38th in scoring defense, which doesn’t seem all that impressive. However, of the 12 touchdowns Pitt has allowed this season, one came when the defense wasn’t even on the field, when Central Florida returned a punt 87 yards for a score. Six of the touchdowns the defense has given up this year came on drives that began in Pitt territory. That leaves five long, sustained touchdown drives the defense has given up this season, four of which came in games against No. 12 Penn State and No. 18 Central Florida. Penn State and Central Florida currently rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in scoring offense nationally.

“That’s a hard one to answer,” senior cornerback Dane Jackson said when asked if this is the best defense he’s played on at Pitt. Jackson is in his third year as a starter. “I mean, we’ve had a lot of great defenses. But this year, we feel pretty comfortable out there playing.”

One thing the defense could improve upon is forcing more turnovers. In five games, the Panthers have forced just two turnovers, both interceptions that came against Central Florida.

“We would like to have more,” safeties coach Cory Sanders said on Tuesday. “You know, you’re through five games and have two. We continue to make it a point of emphasis and we just have to make sure we continue to get better.”

Sanders added missing an easy interception in practice results in pushups for the player in question and turnovers are also highlighted during film study.

“We harp on it daily. We harp on it in the film room, of missed opportunities when we don’t make those plays,” Sanders said.

The head coach isn’t too worried about the lack of turnovers just yet.

“Sometimes they come, sometimes they don't. I'm not going crazy over it. You can't. You’d like to get more,” Narduzzi said.

Narduzzi explained there’s a balance between defenders being focused on knocking the ball out and still making the necessary tackles.

“You've got to take what they give you, and we continue every week to do the same things as far as trying to get the ball out in our team periods, and we've just got to keep going,” Narduzzi said. “Things will happen.”

As for the front seven’s dominance this season, Narduzzi doesn’t solely give credit to the unit for those numbers, pointing out the secondary has done well in containing receivers, helping to create coverage sacks.

Jackson, when asked if all the sacks this season are coverage sacks, laughed and said, “I mean, I wouldn’t say all of them. But we do our job.”

The defensive captain said the secondary has helped the front seven get to the quarterback more regularly by providing good coverage and says it’s a function of the two working hand in hand. Perhaps the harmonious relationship between the front seven and secondary has helped the defense succeed this year.

“We help them, they help us,” Jackson said. “We work together well.”

Amanda Filipcic-Godsey is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. She covers Pitt football and basketball for CNHI Pa. newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaFGodsey.

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