Punishing Pitt: No. 24 Panthers relying on dominant defense

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi bit his tongue all week whenever someone would mention the challenge Louisville’s fast pace would present when the Cardinals visited Heinz Field.

After another 60 minutes of dominance in a 23-20 victory over the Cardinals that was close only on the scoreboard, Narduzzi let everyone in on a little secret: He wasn’t worried. Not a lick.

“Speed was not a factor, which I knew it wouldn’t be,” Narduzzi said after his team improved to 3-0 for the first time in his six-year tenure.

He’s got a point. The Cardinals were expected to present a significant step up in class after the Panthers rolled past Austin Peay and Syracuse to start the season. Instead, Louisville simply became the latest to get a first-hand glimpse at what could be one of the best defenses in the country.

Seven sacks, three picks and four quarters of excellence later, the Panthers turned Cardinals coach Scott Satterfield into a believer.

“These guys led the nation in sacks last year, and they picked up where they left off,” Satterfield said. “They’re an incredible pass-rushing team. They’ve proven that the last two years.”

Pitt’s performance in 2019 was a bit of a surprise after the Panthers lost defensive linemen Rashad Weaver in August and Keyshon Camp a handful of plays into Week 1 with season-ending injuries. Jaylen Twyman helped pick up the slack, becoming an All-American in the process. Yet even with Twyman sitting out 2020 to prepare for next spring’s NFL draft, the return of Weaver and Camp have given defensive coordinator Randy Bates all the tools necessary to put together the kind of aggressive game plans that could keep the Panthers in the hunt for a trip to the ACC title game even as the offense continues to operate in fits and starts.

Louisville gained 223 yards on Saturday, less than half of what the Cardinals had been averaging coming in. Take out a 75-yard touchdown run by Javian Hawkins and a 31-yard sprint on a fake punt that Narduzzi took the blame for, and the Cardinals managed 117 yards on their other 49 snaps.

“They caused commotion,” said Hawkins, who managed all of 3 yards on his other 12 carries.

A commotion Pitt believes it can bring week in and week out. The defense adopted the motto “Unfinished Business” over the summer because it felt it let too many games slip away last season, when three of its five losses came by a touchdown or less.

For the Panthers to get to where they believe they can go, they’ll have to pull through in tight games. The victory over the Cardinals provided a dry run of sorts. While Pitt controlled the game for long stretches, the offense was unable to put it away.

Three times in the fourth quarter Louisville trotted on the field with the ball and a chance to tie or take the lead. One of the possessions ended in a punt, the other two ended with a member of the secondary slamming the ball into the “turnover hoop” on the sideline after picking off Louisville’s Malik Cunningham.

Asked whose dunk was the most impressive, defensive end Patrick Jones II laughed, saying he hopes he gets a shot at throwing it down himself at some point. Considering the way the defensive front four is playing, maybe the Panthers should come up with some alternate celebration when there’s a sack. Jones recorded a career-high three against the Cardinals while Weaver had 1 1/2 in his second game since his return.

Yet Pitt insists there’s more work to be done. The user-friendly early schedule that features four straight games at Heinz Field to start 2020 concludes next weekend when North Carolina State visits, giving the Panthers a chance to start 4-0 for the first time since 2000. The stakes will only continue to rise in October, a month that includes a trip to Miami and a home date against Notre Dame.

Narduzzi, however, remains bullish. The way the Panthers are playing when the opposing offense is on the field gives him little choice. He offers as proof the way his team smothered the Cardinals a week after Louisville rolled up 516 yards against the Hurricanes.

“You saw what they did to Miami, a great Miami defense a week ago, and then you look at what they did to a Pitt defense,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a little different deal when you line up against a Pitt defense.”

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