Panthers looking to shore up pass defense as ACC play looms

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi hasn’t lost faith in his secondary, though there’s plenty to work on after surrendering 872 yards through the air in the last two games, including 540 to Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph in a 45-38 loss on Saturday.

“They’ve got to understand it works when you do it right,” Narduzzi said Monday. “It doesn’t work if you don’t do it right. If you continue to do it your way, we’re going to have problems.”

The Panthers had plenty of issues against the Cowboys, namely keeping Oklahoma State wide receivers within arm’s reach.

It started on the first play – a 91-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Rudolph to Washington – and never really stopped, the winning score with 1:28 remaining coming after an 86-yard strike from Rudolph to Jhajuan Sales. Narduzzi made sure to spread the blame around, from the coaching staff to pass rush to cornerbacks defensive backs like Avonte Maddox, who spent the majority of the afternoon on the wrong end of highlight reel catches by Washington.

Maddox took responsibility afterward, though Narduzzi stressed he has no interest in making personnel changes heading into this week’s ACC opener against North Carolina (2-1).

“Avonte Maddox is our best corner,” Narduzzi said.

One who will need to shrug it off quickly if the Panthers (2-1) want to take a step forward in the wide-open Coastal Division. The Tar Heels are the defending division champion and quarterback Mitch Trubisky had touchdown throws of 71 and 75 yards in a breezy 56-28 victory over James Madison over the weekend. Trubisky, however, isn’t ready to say his team has a decided advantage while facing the 102nd ranked pass defense in the country.

“I think they’re a lot better than what they’ve given up and I think they’re going to come in here very hungry so we’ve got to have a great week of practice if we want to do something like that,” Trubisky said on Monday. “I think they’re going to come in here with the mindset that they’re going to shut us down and really clean up what they’ve got going on defense.”

Just don’t expect any sort of major schematic overhaul. Narduzzi made his name by making Michigan State’s defense one of the best in the country while serving nearly a decade as defensive coordinator for Mark Dantonio and has instituted an aggressive approach in which the Panthers find exotic ways to bring pressure.

Pitt can get to the quarterback. The Panthers are tied for fifth in the country in sacks (13) and tied the game in the third quarter against the Cowboys when Ejuan Price barreled into Rudolph and Matt Galambos returned the ensuing fumble 2 yards for a touchdown.

The problem is what happens when the rush doesn’t collapse the pocket.

“The (defensive) line definitely has to own some of that,” Price said. “We left the DBs out to dry and we have to own that.”

Maybe, but Narduzzi is well aware that the guys in the defensive backfield have to do their job too.

“They are on an island out there and eventually they have to make a play on the ball,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what the coverage is. It’s hard to give them help all the time.”


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