By Matt Popchock

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Pitt’s feast-or-famine defense trended back in the direction of famine Saturday, giving away a 21-14 lead to No. 18 Louisville as morning gave way to afternoon at Heinz Field.

The Panthers (0-3, 2-4) allowed the Cardinals (1-0, 6-0) to march into field goal range and cut that deficit in a span of 49 seconds before the first half expired, then, on the first play from scrimmage of the second half, yielded a 75-yard touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater to DeVante Parker that seized whatever remained of the momentum Pitt mustered.

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Furthermore, in all three Big East losses, Pitt has allowed a touchdown on its first defensive series of the game.

“You’ve got to be ready to play. You’ve got to go out there, you’ve got to execute, and you’ve got to give the ball back to our offense. We didn’t do that,” defensive back Jarred Holley said after the 45-35 defeat. “We’ll find out what our locker room is built of, and who comes ready to play.”

What was executed, seemingly, were the chances of Pitt grabbing a Big East title on its way out the door. No team has ever won even a share of its championship with more than two conference losses.

Having said that, Holley’s point is well taken. The pressure is on the Panthers to stay hungry even after their primary objective has fallen out of reach, and he said this team has what it takes to make the 2012 campaign a more respectable one.

“It’s a new coaching staff, but that doesn’t matter. We’re definitely coming together as a group. We’re starting to realize we’re a family,” Todd Thomas agreed.

Generally that game-changing touchdown toss has been the exception, not the norm, for this group, which still ranks in the top 30 nationally in pass defense. However, after three straight weekends of solid play sandwiched between lackluster efforts against Youngstown State, Cincinnati, and The ‘Ville, it ranks sixth in the Big East in scoring defense, averaging 25.2 points allowed per game.

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The Panthers allowed Bridgewater to throw for over 300 yards. They also allowed Louisville to convert six of its first nine third-down situations, and allowed four TD’s in as many red zone trips.

“Everything they did, we went over in practice. All the schemes were basically the same. We might have been a little out of position, but we’re going to go back to the film room, and do what we’ve got to do,” Thomas said.

In Louisville the Panthers saw an opponent athletic enough to exploit their lack of team speed on defense. Fortunately, for Pitt’s sake, that defense, on paper, is now more athletic than its previous self.

Jahmahl Pardner’s season-ending injury not withstanding, the Panthers are healthier than they’ve been on that side of the ball all year. Dan Mason, once thought to be a possible impact player, has made a remarkable comeback, and now fellow linebacker Thomas has buoyed their spirits, recovering his own punt block for a special teams touchdown Saturday.

“It’s nice to have those guys back, and have that depth, but we’ve just got to execute our gameplan,” Holley said.

Some believed, entering this season, the defense could carry this team while the offense relearned under a new brain-trust. With Buffalo immediately ahead, and Birmingham suddenly looking like Pasadena, Pitt now has exactly half a season to prove it.

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(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)