(93-7 THE FAN) — Once again, there was a coaching change at Pitt right before this year’s BBVA Compass Bowl, but this time it wasn’t the one everyone dreaded, and it doesn’t look like it’s crushed the spirit of a defense that played spirited football at season’s end.
As they prepare to meet middle-of-the-road SEC squad Ole Miss (6-6) at Legion Field Saturday, the Panthers rank 17th nationally in total defense, averaging 325.8 yards allowed per game, and are tops in the Big East against the pass, allowing 196.8 yards per contest.
They improved steadily under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, who left the program after the regular season to take the same job at future ACC rival North Carolina State, thanks to significant contributions from their underclassmen.
Junior lineman Ty Ezell, who enters the bowl game with 34 total tackles, including seven for a loss, and 3.5 sacks to his credit, talked recently about how the defense has prepared for the Rebels, and which other underclassman has impressed him the most in 2012:
It’s also hard not to be impressed with the play of first-year cornerback–and first-year starter–Lafayette Pitts, who was quite the competent two-way player at Woodland Hills, but really got to showcase his defensive prowess this season.
“Everybody’s helped me…the juniors and seniors in the secondary, [Jarred] Holley, Jason Hendricks, K’Waun Williams…they just keep pushing me to play better, and strive for better things. The coaches have really helped me out,” Pitts said recently.
As is usually the case with freshmen, Pitts explained his biggest adjustment to the college game was its speed–something the Ole Miss offense has a lot of, according to the Duquesne native, especially on the outside.
Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace, who has thrown for 2,843 yards, has been the focal point of an offense revamped by head coach Hugh Freeze. Receiver Donte Moncrief ranks second in the conference with ten touchdowns, and fifth in yards with 948, and fellow flanker Vince Sanders, yet another important part of that sophomore class, is also one to watch.
That said, Pitts has also quickly forged a reputation as one of the top playmakers in his own league, registering 32 tackles, ten passes defended, and averaging 25.8 yards per kick return, and he explained what he and his teammates make of Mississippi’s attack:
Wallace can be a spark plug, but he has also struggled to take care of the ball, throwing 15 picks against his 19 touchdowns. A key for the Pitt defense will be putting heat in his kitchen, and junior defensive lineman Aaron Donald has been cooking up something fierce all year.
Donald really ramped up his own game in must-win scenarios against Rutgers and South Florida, and he earned First-Team All-Big East honors for a second time after recording 5.5 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 11 quarterback hurries in 2012.
“I’ve gotten more comfortable, going out there and being able to make plays–me and the team. [Huxtable] always warned you about your effort, and I learned to go hard on every play,” said Donald, who talked about what he feels he’s improved upon the most:
In another spring, under whichever new defensive coordinator comes down the turnpike, the Pitt defense appears to be on the road to becoming a dominant force in its new home. For that unit, tomorrow begins today in Birmingham.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
Kickoff between the Panthers and Rebels is set for 1:00, with Panther Gameday, featuring Gregg Giannotti, set for 10:00 A.M. on your flagship home of Pitt football, SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan.