Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) celebrates a sack during the second quarter against the Virginia Cavaliers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Panthers defense finally shows up

Now that’s the Pittsburgh Panthers football team we’ve all been accustomed too; gritty. The Pittsburgh Panthers were able to pull it together defensively, and they absolutely shut down David Watford and the Virginia Cavaliers offense in a 14-3 victory. Unlike last week’s 58-55 win over the Duke Blue Devils, the Panthers defense bailed out the offense, as Tom Savage digressed to his Week 1 form with two interceptions, and James Conner mustered under two yards per carry after a promising game against Duke. Both players aren’t great, but Savage and Conner are good players who won’t play this poorly every week.

Pitt’s defense came into today’s game under heavy fire, and I was among those calling for defensive coordinator Matt House’s head before the game. Giving up 55 points against Duke was inexcusable, and House had a difficult time making in-game adjustments. It was even worse than the pass defense woes against the Florida State Seminoles to open the season, because Jameis Winston is infinitely better than Duke’s backup QB. House’s apparent inability to accurately assess his own team’s strengths and weaknesses (asking the linebackers to play coverage and two press corners to play “back”, while also inexplicably starting “lost” safety Ray Vinopal) was of huge concern, but the way Pitt’s defense played today shows that people like me need to relax when it comes to House. Maybe the Panthers really do have things figured out on defense, and hopefully both the offense and defense can click at the same time in the big games.

The strength of this Pittsburgh team was supposed to come on defense coming into the season, as they are a top 25 unit from last year that is returning eight starters, including star Aaron Donald. The struggles against Florida State and, more concerning, Duke were incredibly disappointing, so hopefully today’s display over UVA is a sign of things to come.

Watford only had 3.3 yards per attempt for Virginia, and that’s an absolutely atrocious number. The two biggest strengths for Pitt on paper are clearly at defensive back and wide receiver, and they were both in full force today looking at Watford’s stats. The secondary is a veteran one with plenty of playmaking talent, and they did their jobs today for sure. The receivers have been amazing all year, and Devin Street and Tyler Boyd carried the offense by combining for 11 receptions for 169 yards and a touchdown. Street is going to be somebody in the NFL, and Boyd has all the upside in the world as he’s only a freshman.

But back to the defense. Pittsburgh held Virginia to just a 3-18 third down efficiency, which was only slightly worse than Pittsburgh’s own total of 5-18 on offense. They were also dominant against the run, as they held the Cavaliers to a paltry two yards per carry and suffocated Kevin Parks to the tune of just 34 yards on 16 carries. Based on last week’s game against Duke, I was concerned about Pitt’s ability to handle a quarterback who can run, even if Watford isn’t that proficient as a rusher. Pitt completely detained Watford, who had a tough time getting anything going when he wanted to.

Pittsburgh was lucky that Virginia fumbled a punt in their own red zone, and Virginia also decided to unsuccessfully go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal on a couple of occasions. But Pittsburgh was a better team, they are 3-1 and on the right track, and this defense bounced back and put a chokehold on Virginia’s offense. It was an ugly but good win for Pitt, and it could be a sign of things to come if both the offense and defense can play at a high level simultaneously.

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