A week after turning the corner and putting together its best game of the young season, Pitt's defensive line will have to do it again Saturday, most likely without its best player.
Coach Paul Chryst said defensive tackle Aaron Donald was questionable for the game against Gardner-Webb because of a knee injury. Chryst said "[Donald didn't] feel great, but [is] not totally ruled out."
Chryst also said Donald should be fine the rest of the season. Pitt has an open week after Gardner-Webb followed by a Friday night game at Syracuse.
Freshman Darryl Render is listed behind Donald on the depth chart and has been receiving extra repetitions in practice this week. Render, originally recruited as a defensive end, has impressed coaches enough this season to work his way onto the field as a defensive tackle.
He has played in all three games and made two tackles.
"He's mature beyond his years and he's going to come in and just get bigger and stronger," defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said.
Render wouldn't be the first young defensive lineman to step into in a key role. Redshirt freshman Devin Cook got his first career start Saturday against Virginia Tech at defensive end. He finished with five tackles, including two for a loss.
Chryst said that, while the experience will benefit Cook down the road, inexperience is no reason a player can't help the Panthers right now.
"There's a guy that I think's growing and getting better," Chryst said, referring to Cook. "That'll benefit him the rest of this year, and you hope it carries over into next year, but there's only one reason he was out there: He gave us the best chance that day."
With Cook playing a key role, the defensive line finally showed what it is capable of against the Hokies. Coming into the game, Pitt ranked 106th in the country in rushing defense, allowing 231.5 yards per game. The Panthers then held Virginia Tech to just 59 yards rushing on 26 attempts.
"We played with more energy," Huxtable said. "We played with more passion and we just played better assignment football. We had more hats getting to the football."
Assignment football is especially evident along the defensive line. On a keyfourth-and-1 late in the Virginia Tech game, the line occupied its blocks, took away the possibility of a quarterback sneak and freed up linebacker Shane Gordon to make the tackle for no gain.
Donald was a big part of that success, but Huxtable was confident that other linemen can take on that role.
"The more War Daddies that you have up there, they don't have to pay as much attention to one guy," Huxtable said. "They've got to pay attention to the other three guys as well.
NOTES -- In addition to Donald, Chryst also listed tight end Hubie Graham and linebacker Todd Thomas as questionable for the game against Gardner-Webb. Graham injured his clavicle against Cincinnati, but returned to the game. He sat out the win against Virginia Tech. Thomas has been out since early in training camp, but returned to practice last week, and Chryst had sounded optimistic that he would return to game action against Gardner-Webb. ... Defensive end Jack Lippert, who missed the Virginia Tech game, is doubtful this week.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published September 21, 2012 4:00 AM