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Pitt defense exposed in Saturday's loss to NC State

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Despite its reputation, the Pitt defense has regressed each week this season

North Carolina State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pitt defense was supposed to be one of college football’s best this season, and it may well be when all is said and done. But on Saturday, the secondary was a liability, and the defensive line was unable to put any pressure on NC State quarterback Devin Leary. The defense was also entrusted with the outcome of the game and failed, allowing a mediocre offense led by an unproven quarterback to march down the field and win the game.

All told, the Panthers defense allowed the Wolfpack offense to accrue 398 yards. The secondary was especially weak, as it gave up 336 of those yards on passes and all four of the NC State touchdowns came through the air. NC State receivers Cary Angeline and Emeka Emezie troubled Pitt the most, as they each had two touchdowns. Angeline burned Paris Ford and Brandon George for his, and Emezie beat Marquis Williams and later Jason Pinnock for the game-winning reception.

What should trouble Pitt about its defense is that it is trending in a negative direction. Most notably, Pitt’s defensive play has gotten progressively worse each game this season, as it gave up 137 total yards to Austin Peay, 171 total yards to Syracuse, 223 total yards to Louisville and 398 total yards to NC State. That has coincided with a gradual increase in points allowed, as the Panthers gave up zero to the Governors, 10 to the Orange, 20 to the Cardinals and 30 to the Wolfpack. And all the while, the games have gotten closer, as Pitt’s scoring margin shrunk from plus-55 to plus-11 to plus-three to minus-one.

However, while the quality of competition gradually increased from Week 1 to Week 3, it actually decreased from Week 3 to Week 4, as Pitt traded a ranked team with an explosive offense in Louisville for an unranked and flawed team coming off a 4-8 season in NC State. In addition, NC State fielded the 107th-ranked offense in the country last year, as it scored 22.1 points per game. That put it roughly on par with Pitt’s offense from last season, and yet, in the decisive drive of the game, the Pitt defense allowed Leary — who completed 48.1 percent of his passes last season and won zero games as a starter — to complete six of nine passes and reclaim the lead the Pitt offense had just taken.

Considering this team is built around its defense and its offense has consistently struggled since the departure of Matt Canada after the 2016 season, Pitt cannot play without defensive support and expect to win. Saturday exemplified why, as the offense played its second-best game of the season and scored 29 points but still could not prevail.

Now, Pitt will have to shake off the loss and move on to Chestnut Hill, where it will face a new-look Boston College team that resembles Pitt in a lot of ways. The Eagles allow just 17.6 points per game, which is just higher than Pitt’s 15.0. They also have a capable quarterback in former WPIAL star Phil Jurkovec, a few decent receivers to support him and virtually no running game. That means the secondary should expect to be tested by Boston College, and if it plays anything like it did against NC State, Pitt will be heading into the toughest part of its schedule with a 3-2 record.

With that said, Boston College has allowed 11 sacks this season, including six against Duke. That doesn’t make Boston College as soft a target as Syracuse, but it suggests that an opportunity exists for the Pitt defensive line to reassert its dominance. And if that happens, the Pitt defense as a whole could benefit.