Back Pitt On The Brink of History

Back To ACC

Pitt On The Brink of History

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin.  Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page

Their 45 sacks through ten games not only lead the nation, but are the most by any team, over the first ten contests of the season, since Utah had 47 in 2014.

Pitt has one of the best defenses in the country, this season.

In some respects, it’s historically good.

Their 45 sacks through ten games not only lead the nation, but are the most by any team, over the first ten contests of the season, since Utah had 47 in 2014. That Utah team is also the only team other than Pitt to hit that mark, since the turn of the century.

However, that Utah team’s pass rush productivity took a slight dip over its final three outings and ended up with an average of 4.23 per game. Granted, that 4.23 mark is still the best of the last decade, and only one other team -- 2012 Stanford -- finished with more than four per game during that stretch, but Pitt’s current 4.5 per game rate relatively dwarfs either of those numbers.

That ‘12 Stanford group actually ended up with the single season record for team sacks in a season, since the NCAA officially started keeping track in 2000, with 57, on account of playing one more game than Utah was afforded the opportunity to in 2014. Yet, at this rate, Pitt would pass Stanford for the record even without a 14th game.

Granted, an extra chance to make history, even if it’s against Clemson, would grant the Panthers a little leeway. Then again, as the only team with at least two sacks in every game this year, it’s not like consistency has been an issue.

From an efficiency standpoint, 4th in the nation in sacks per opposing dropback, they are elite. From a raw production standpoint, they have a chance to be the best of the millennium.

And if an all-time pass rush was the only thing this defense had going for it, that would still be a heckuva one-trick pony. To chalk it up as little more than that, though, is a perilous mistake.

It’s hard to call it a star-laden group, simply because of the lack of national notoriety. Yet, that injustice is through no fault of their own. For more than a few Panther defenders, their on-field play warrants all-conference honors, national award consideration in some cases, and certainly far more headlines than they’ve received.

On the whole, they’re in the top 20 in defensive OAYP, which adjusts yards per play and points per drive allowed for the strength of opposing offenses. They’re also in the top 25 in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, the top 20 in rushing touchdowns allowed, 7th in yards per carry, 9th in both yards per pass attempt and opposing passer rating allowed, and 11th in tackles for loss. Oh, and of course there’s that whole sack thing, too.

Of course, it does all start up front, with Patrick Jones on the edge and Jalen Twyman in the interior. Both are in the top four among ACC defenders at their respective positions, according to OAYP.

The latter’s 9.5 sacks are second in the ACC, only behind Miami’s Greg Rousseau, and first in the nation, among interior defensive linemen. He’s also a smooth 2.5 above his nearest conference competitor among interior defenders.

The former, meanwhile, is also in the top five in the ACC in sacks, with 7, and his four forced fumbles are good for first in the conference and tied for third in the FBS.

Long and fast with a killer get-off, Jones is always the first man off the line of scrimmage. He converts speed to power with the best of them and when he gets home, he doesn’t just loom to take the quarterback down, he looks to take the ball away. With a deep bag of tricks in his pass rush arsenal, and strong, steady disciplined run defense, he’s as polished as they come.

In concert with Jalen Twyman, who moves like no man his size should be able to, they are one of just two P5 duos that have two players in the national top 25 in sacks, joining Wisconsin linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun. The fact that Twyman has acquired his production from the entire defensive linemen only makes it that much more impressive.

When Aaron Donald made that seven figure donation to the program, he probably didn’t think that would mean the former three-star recruit sophomore would start playing like him. Yet, with three (maybe four) games to play, Twyman is just two sacks away from surpassing Donald’s single season high, which he too set as a sophomore, and then tied as a senior.

Give credit to the coaching staff, too. Aside from maximizing the potential of their severely underrated talent, they’ve deployed said talent brilliantly. In particular, the way Pat Narduzzi, Charlie Partridge, and Randy Bates have attacked opposing quarterbacks when they get knocked off schedule stands out.

They play it a little safer on standard downs, and have a 6.1% sack rate to show for it, which is still solid at 48th in the country, thanks to their ability to get home rushing just four. However, on passing downs, it’s no holds barred, and their sack rate leaps to 17.6%, the nation’s second best rate, behind Ohio State and Ohio State alone.

Basically, if teams get behind the sticks against Pitt, they’re dead to rights.

Bear in mind, they’re doing all this without Rashad Weaver, who has missed the entire season, or Keyshon Camp, who basically has too. Weaver was projected as one of the top five ACC edge rushers entering the season, according to OAYP, before tearing his ACL in fall camp, while Camp, one of just three Pitt defenders that was rated as better than a three-star recruit and the only one in the front seven, injured his knee in the opener against Virginia.

One can’t help but imagine what this defensive front would look like with those two, especially given what they’ve accomplished without them.

The other two former four-star Pitt defenders have stayed healthy, though -- safeties Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford. Both are living up to their billing, and Ford, the most highly touted prospect on the entire roster, is far exceeding even those high expectations, as OAYP’s #1 safety in the ACC. Among the best in the nation at the position, his not being named a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award is criminal.

A DB havoc machine, Ford is one of just three players in the country with multiple picks, forced fumbles, and at least ten pass breakups. He’s also second among all ACC defensive backs with 72 tackles. Thanks in part to his experience playing some corner last season, Ford boasts elite versatility and coverage ability to pair with his raw gifts. He’s probably the best pure athlete on the team and one of the truly special players in the game right now.

With him leading the way, Pitt’s playmaking secondary has three players in the top five of the conference in passes defended. Ford is tied for second in the league with 13, while cornerbacks Dane Jackson and Damarri Mathis are tied for 4th with 12 apiece. Factor in Jason Pinnock’s 8 and that makes four in the top ten. All three of those cornerbacks also rank in the top ten in the ACC in OAYP, led by Jackson at #3.

Again a credit to Pitt’s coaching, Jackson is as polished a cornerback as Patrick Jones is a defensive end. Now, obviously, it’s always a lot easier to do that with players as talented and intelligent as Jackson. Now in his fourth year as a starter, his football IQ is the first thing that jumps out, but he’s got the long speed to run with even the fastest receivers on the perimeter, the natural fluidity to cover the most dynamic slot receivers, and immaculate footwork. He’s the leader of the defense and he’s been doing it for so long now, it feels like he usually runs better routes than the guys he’s covering.

The one pervasive attribute that describes everyone in Pitt’s defensive backfield is versatility. Ford and Jackson both have it in spades, as do Mathis and Pinnock, but no one exemplifies that better than Hamlin.

Want to leave him in single-high? That’s fine. Put him in the slot? Sure. Stick him in the box? Why not? There’s even speculation that he could be a true cornerback at the next level. The point is, in the modern game, with the way offenses have evolved, multi-purpose chess pieces are at an all-time premium. No one has more utility than Hamlin.

Clearly, the sheer sum of Pitt’s parts would be awfully high, but it’s more than that. A complementary group, their pass rush combined with the ball skills in the defensive backfield is the height of symbiosis. They have the most sacks in the country, the most pass breakups in the country, and the most total passes defended in the country.

When opposing quarterbacks drop back against Pitt, bad things usually happen. Over 11% of the time, they get sacked. Even when they don’t the pressure forces a lot of incompletions -- they rank third in allowed completion percentage at 49.9%. And even when the ball does find its target, one of those DB’s is usually smacking it into the turf.

And, again, just to reiterate, that #7 ranking in yards per rush allowed is no joke either.

There’s just no good way to attack Pitt. For that reason, they’re the ACC Coastal’s best chance at standing up to the tyranny of Clemson in the championship game. Granted, beating Clemson would also require some offense, and that’s a different matter entirely, but no one is going to blow the Panthers out. Since the opener against Virginia, both of the losses have come by a touchdown or less, and both of those opponents -- Penn State and Miami -- were held to 17 points or fewer.

Pitt will need some help. They can help themselves this weekend against a Virginia Tech team that has come a long way from the start of the season. Then, they’ve just got to hope the Hokies can hold onto the Commonwealth Cup the following Friday, which, if the recent history of that rivalry is any indication, should be no problem. Should that happen, simply take care of business versus Boston College a day later and it’ll be an ACC title rematch.

Regardless of how these next few weeks unfold, though, it’s time that the college football community at large appreciate what Pitt’s defense is doing. Laughably underrated almost across the board, from Patrick Jones and Jalen Twyman to Dane Jackson and Paris Ford, Pitt has the second best defense in the ACC and one of the best defenses in the nation, comprised of some of the best players in both the conference and the country.

On the brink of history, the Panthers’ defensive dominance extends far beyond its pass rush prowess.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP