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Pitt Looks to Defensive Front for Key Road Win

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb shares his preview and prediction on Pittsburgh vs Tennessee.

The players may change, but the strength of the Pitt football program remains largely the same.

The Panthers no longer have the services of defensive linemen Patrick Jones II or Rashard Weaver, who were first and second on the team in sacks, combining for 16.5 sacks last year. But the Pitt defensive front and pass rush looked as good as ever in Week 1. Pitt held its first 2021 opponent to 42 rushing yards and posted five sacks.

However, that was against UMass at Heinz Field. This Saturday, the Panthers face the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium.

Yet the formula for the Panthers will remain the same -- their defensive front will likely have to dominate to win.

Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III was inconsistent in the season opener against Bowling Green, but the offense scored 38 points behind a pair of 100-yard rushers. Running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small each tallied 116 yards and a touchdown. Evans reached that total on just 16 carries, averaging 7.3 yards per rush.

Milton did his fair share of running too. He totaled 44 yards and reached the end zone twice on the ground.

It’ll be strength against strength when that ground attack meets the Pitt front seven. The Panthers have been ranked first against the run in the ACC each of the last two seasons. During 2020, only Georgia and Texas A&M gave up fewer rushing yards per game than Pitt.

The question is will the Panthers be able to shut down a running game on the road against a Power 5 opponent. Pitt’s last win against a Power 5 opponent not in the ACC was five years ago against Penn State. Since then, Pitt is 0-7 against the Power 5 (excluding conference games).

Pitt hasn’t beaten an out-of-conference Power 5 program on the road since joining the ACC in 2012. The last big-time non-conference win for the Panthers came against Notre Dame in 2008. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was in his second year as defensive coordinator at Michigan State back then.

Even though Tennessee is unranked and not expected to compete in the SEC East this season, devising a game plan to slow down the Volunteers running game and winning in Knoxville will be a big deal for Narduzzi and the Pitt program.

If the Panthers can contain the Volunteers run attack, Pitt’s defensive front should easily overwhelm Milton, who was just 11 of 23 for 140 yards with a touchdown against Bowling Green in Week 1. But the key for Pitt’s defense will be preventing Milton from finding the big play.

Milton completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Tillman and a 30-yard reception to Jalin Hyatt on Saturday. Those two plays equaled half of Milton’s passing total.

Pitt is prone to giving up long passing plays at times. Last year, the Panthers allowed 22 plays through the air that totaled at least 30 yards. That was tied for third-most in the ACC. Yet they were also tied for the conference lead with 46 sacks.

Clearly, it’s feast or famine for the Pitt pass defense. Nothing will change this weekend.

Of course, it will help Pitt if quarterback Kenny Pickett completes some passes down field too. The Panthers are still figuring out their running back rotation, so Pickett is the key to Pitt’s offense scoring enough points to win a road game like this. Pickett’s longer tenure in his offense and poise should be an advantage over Milton.

Still, the pressure might be on Pickett and Pitt the most. The Panthers, and the ACC for that matter, could really use a victory against a brand-name opponent.

For it to happen, the Pitt defensive front needs to do a lot more feasting this Saturday.

Prediction: Pitt 24, Tennessee 23