Pitt's secondary to face big challenge from Irish

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Pitt's pass defense, and its secondary in particular, has improved dramatically from the early part of the season when the Panthers were torched in September games against Buffalo and North Carolina State.

Statistics can prove the point. But one big question remains: How will the secondary fare against an elite passing attack?

It is a question that will be answered tomorrow night when the eighth-ranked Panthers (8-1) play host to Notre Dame (6-3) in a nationally televised contest. The Fighting Irish feature an explosive offense led by quarterback Jimmy Clausen that includes two of college football's top receivers -- Michael Floyd and Golden Tate.

  • Game: No. 8 Pitt (8-1) vs. Notre Dame (6-3), 8 p.m.
  • Where: Heinz Field.
  • TV: WTAE.
  • Line: Pitt by 7.

The Panthers gave up 433 passing yards to Buffalo and 322 more to North Carolina State and a combined total of eight touchdown passes. Six of those covered 20 yards or more and four traveled 30 yards or more.

Since the North Carolina State game, however, only one opponent -- Louisville -- in the past five games has passed for 200 or more yards, with the Cardinals accumulating 204.

Since the Louisville game, Pitt has yielded 197 yards in the air against Connecticut, 153 yards against Rutgers, 90 against South Florida and 141 against Syracuse.

None of those teams had particularly strong passing attacks, and all five either had issues settling on a quarterback due to erratic play, or, in the case of South Florida, a first-year starter trying to find his way.

That will not be the case tomorrow when the Irish come to Heinz Field featuring a quarterback, Clausen, who may be the best in the country. He has thrown for 2,770 yards and 20 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said Clausen is the best quarterback the Panthers have faced in his five seasons with the team, and several Panthers defensive backs have remarked at marveled at Clausen's arm strength and accuracy.

Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett believes that his secondary has improved, but he is unsure by how much. He is eager to find out, although he knows the answer may be one he will not like.

"I think this will be a challenge," Bennett said. "We had some injuries and didn't have a lot of safety depth and we sort of have had to re-adjust what we are doing.

"So once we moved [Jarred Holley] in there, we've had to go week by week to figure out what we can do. This is a different animal, this is the best passing team, maybe, in the country.

"I do think we have improved. But we had to tweak some things and we had to do some things to protect [Holley], and that's put a little bit more pressure on the other guys."

Holley, a redshirt freshman, has started the past four games at free safety after Elijah Fields sustained an ankle injury.

That forced the coaches to simplify the defense, but it also opened the door when Fields returned to work on a nickel package that has both Fields and Holley, along with three other defensive backs, on the field at the same time against three and four wide-receiver sets.

The strength of the defense, though, always is going to be the linemen generating pressure on the quarterback. That won't change this week.

Bennett was asked if Pitt might blitz Clausen more to help the secondary, but he said that is not the Panthers' style.

"Just like any game, there has to be a balance," Bennett said. "If you are going to bring pressure, you want to make sure, when you say calculated risk, that you have a chance to accomplish what it is you are trying to do. You try to learn what they do and be calculated based on what you know about their tendencies on when you feel you can bring pressure.

"But, against a guy like this [Clausen], you better get there. And I've said this before: It doesn't hurt to get bored, and I'm not a dial-it-up guy.

"And, if you can get pressure with your front four and defend with seven, that's never a bad thing, and it is what we try to do."

NOTES -- Dion Lewis has been named a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. He is the only true freshman on the list. ... The Pitt-Notre Dame game is a split national broadcast on ABC tomorrow night but it will be seen by 83 percent of the country. The other game is Texas Tech-Oklahoma State

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720


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