Pitt's defense has two stars that many casual fans likely have never heard of.
But the names of defensive tackles Rashaad Duncan and Mick Williams are always on the minds of Pitt's players and coaches because they've played at a consistently high level each week and are a major reason the Panthers' defense is one of the best in Division I-A.
• Game: Pitt (7-2) at Cincinnati (7-2), Nov. 22.
• Where: Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Being unheralded goes with the territory for defensive tackles, who have a thankless job. Basically, their No. 1 priority is to occupy as many blockers as possible to allow the other defenders, especially the middle linebacker, to roam free and make tackles. Few tackles do that job better than Williams and Duncan.
Saturday the Panthers' defense might have had its best day this season, limiting Louisville to 299 yards in a 41-7 romp against the Cardinals. The Panthers had three sacks and held the Cardinals to 96 yards rushing, roughly half of what the Cardinals had been averaging.
"I know our defensive guys [appreciate Williams and Duncan], especially that guy sitting right back there," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Saturday while pointing to middle linebacker Scott McKillop. "I remember every draft day when I was with the [Miami] Dolphins, Zach Thomas, all he wanted to know was if we were going to draft defensive tackles because as long as we have guys up front of him who could occupy people it gives the middle linebackers a chance.
"The right people know what those two guys do."
McKillop said there were plenty of people on defense who deserve recognition, but the unit's success begins and ends with Williams and Duncan or whoever else is playing defensive tackle.
"The defensive line is where it starts," McKillop said. "Rashaad Duncan, Mick Williams and when Gus [Mustakas] and Myles Caragein are in there -- they make my job a lot easier. I think the game ball has to go to the defensive line in my opinion. I don't think people realize at all [how good Williams and Duncan are].
"But going into the season I realized I was going to be double-teamed, and that's fine with me because I know we have Mick and Rashaad there and they are going to make a lot of plays."
Williams said he doesn't worry about who recognizes what he and Duncan do -- he just likes to win games.
"We all have a job to do," Williams said. "We're just trying to do what we're supposed to do. It can be a hard job, but it got fun in the second half [once Pitt got a lead] because that's the greatest feeling in the world because you know it is your time and all you have to do is get there [to the quarterback]"
Although Williams and Duncan do lots of things that don't show up in the stat sheet at the end of games, they make their share of big plays, too.
Duncan, for instance, beat a double team to stop a fourth-and-1 run in the third quarter, ending a promising Louisville drive at a critical time. He finished with six tackles, second to McKillop.
Williams was involved in two key sacks, one solo and one when he assisted Austin Ransom. For interior defensive linemen, getting a sack is rare and difficult.
McKillop said that playing behind Williams has been a lot of fun because he is such a good athlete. Williams -- 6-foot-1, 285 -- makes some plays that linemen his size are not supposed to make. He is so athletic that he occasionally drops into coverage, where he has broken up a few passes.
"Mick is quick and, if you ask any of our offensive linemen, his first two steps are like an explosion, it is like he is shot out of a canon," McKillop said.
NOTES -- Pitt is off this week and will have an extra week to prepare for Cincinnati, which has become a big game. The Bearcats (7-2, 3-1 in the Big East Conference) and the Panthers (7-2, 3-1) are tied with West Virginia (6-3, 3-1) for first place in the conference. Cincinnati visits Louisville Saturday.
Paul Zeise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-398-2682