Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said the only statistic he pays attention to is scoring defense. All the other stuff is window dressing.
But it has been hard not to notice the improvement in pass defense, which has gone from horrid at the beginning of the season to downright stingy in recent weeks.
In the first four games, the Panthers gave up 957 yards passing and eight touchdowns through the air. In the past four, they have allowed 739 yards and three touchdowns.
- Game: No. 16 Pitt (7-1, 4-0 Big East) vs. Syracuse (3-4, 0-2).
- When: Noon, Nov. 7.
- Where: Heinz Field.
- TV: ESPNU.
"If you take two games out of it -- the Buffalo and North Carolina State games -- we're probably No. 1 or 2 in the nation," Bennett said. "But they happened. And they weren't things we can't stop. It was tackling.
"Against Buffalo, we missed three tackles on short passes that should have stopped for short gains. Instead, they're 75 and 80 yards, and that goes back to fundamentals. There were plays we can make in our sleep that we didn't make."
The Buffalo and North Carolina State games accounted for 755 of those 957 yards and all eight touchdowns.
Pitt is coming off perhaps its best defensive game of the season against South Florida. The Bulls made 11 first downs and gained 212 total yards, 90 through the air.
Coach Dave Wannstedt said the players have become more comfortable, and the coaches have a better idea of which players fit into certain roles.
"We've gotten settled in a little bit more on defense," Wannstedt said. "I've seen it happen a couple of different ways. Sometimes, teams start fast and kind of unravel as the season goes on. Sometimes, teams go the other way. They don't start quite as fast as you would like. That was how our defense was. There were great expectations. Everyone was talking about them, and we didn't play as well as we were capable of.
"The players kind of settled down a little bit. The coaches got a better feel for who can do what. The thing has just kind of come together the past few weeks."
Making the improvement more impressive is that some reserves have become regular contributors after injuries to starters. Jarred Holley, the fifth cornerback during training camp, has started the past three games at free safety after an injury to Elijah Fields.
Fields was the starter before that because of a season-ending knee injury to Andrew Taglianetti. And Ricky Gary, the third corner, had to replace Aaron Berry, the team's top cornerback, for a week at Rutgers.
"Ricky Gary went in at Rutgers and played outstanding," Bennett said. "And Jared is so into what we're doing. He wants to do it exactly the way we're teaching. Now I don't see him being mechanical. He's free flowing. I like that. He and Dom [DeCicco] did a great job of disguising some coverages last week on third down. There was no place to throw the ball, and they were coverage sacks. Hopefully, we're developing a personality back there."
If the Panthers are going to win the Big East and qualify for a Bowl Championship Series bid, the pass defense must continue to shine.
After an off week this week, the Panthers will face two of the top four passing teams in the nation in their final four games. Cincinnati ranks No. 1 in the Big East and 10th among Division I-A teams with 306.7 yards passing per game. Notre Dame is 11th in the nation with 305.8 yards per game.
NOTES -- The players elected captains earlier this week. Six seniors will be captains the rest of the season -- tight end Nate Byham, receiver Cedric McGee and guard John Malecki on offense and linebacker Adam Gunn and linemen Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams on defense. ... Wannstedt said he will use the off week to look at freshman Dan Mason at outside linebacker. Mason is the backup to Gunn at middle linebacker. "Danny is one of the few linebackers we have with the speed and the ability to make plays in space," Wannstedt said. "The way Adam is playing, we're maybe looking to get Dan some work on the perimeter. At this point, we're just trying to use the people we have to the best of our ability."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1230.