Pitt linebackers have no option but to rebound from loss

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Pitt's linebackers know that they did not play their best game in the Panthers' season-opening loss to Florida State.

With 12 days in between games to think about the opener, they are heading into their second game of the season against New Mexico Saturday with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder.

"They took it personal, don't get me wrong," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said of the defense in general. "But at the same time, I've kind of liked their approach the whole time."

The linebackers, specifically, struggled in the opener sticking with Seminoles receivers, as quarterback Jameis Winston found them downfield.

Linebackers Shane Gordon and Anthony Gonzalez tied for second on the team with eight tackles apiece against Florida State, but it wasn't enough to stop, or even slow down, the Seminoles' attack.

Gonzalez said he watched film of the game the following day, but then immediately put it out of his mind and moved on to preparing for New Mexico.

"I was over it [the day after the game] after we watched the film," he said. "We know that we have to get better and just move on. We can't dwell on the past, just learn from it and keep moving forward."

Multiple defensive players have said since that loss that one of the main reasons Pitt's defense struggled against Florida State was that players weren't correctly reading their assignments or keys on a given play.

That aspect will be magnified this week when the Panthers face New Mexico's run-based option offense. The Lobos rank 17th in Division I-A with 294.0 yards per game on the ground, and running back Kasey Carrier is the leading rusher (345 yards) in Division I-A.

"It's a totally different offense," defensive ends/linebackers coach John Palermo said. "Florida State, they spread you out more, they use more four wideouts. This crowd wants to run the football."

Palermo said stopping an option offense starts by playing "alignment, assignment football."

Sometimes, that might even mean a defender going against his natural instinct of swarming to the ballcarrier. If a linebacker is assigned to stop the pitch man, he needs to stay with the pitch man.

"You better do what you're supposed to do or else you're going to get gutted," Palermo said. "I'd like to tell you there's a fine line, but if I'm supposed to squeeze and take the dive, or if I'm supposed to take the quarterback, if you don't do it, you've got big issues on defense. You really do."

Gonzalez said he hasn't played against a true triple-option team since high school, but is confident he'll be prepared to do his job Saturday at Heinz Field.

There's one final aspect of defending an option offense that Gonzalez said was especially lacking against the Seminoles: trust. If a defender ties to overcompensate for a teammate, he leaves his position open for a big gain.

"You've just got to trust your teammates that they're going to be at their spot at that certain time and just doing your own job," Gonzalez said. "You've got to have each others' backs out there, and I feel like a couple of weeks ago [against Florida State] we didn't do that. This week, it's going to happen."


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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