Panthers finally pay for fourth-period funk

PITT Blown coverages, leadership big part of problem for defense


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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A trend of playing poorly in the fourth quarter has been developed by Pitt's defense through three games, finally catching up to the Panthers Saturday.

"We beat the absolute heck out of them for three-and-a-half quarters and then just didn't finish the game," Pitt defensive end Chas Alecxih said after the Panthers blew a 21-point second-half lead and lost to Iowa, 31-27.

Iowa scored three touchdowns in a seven-minute span in the fourth quarter. Hawkeyes quarterback James Vandenberg, who struggled through three quarters, shredded the Panthers secondary in the fourth period, completing 14 of 17 passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns.

That is the third week in a row the Panthers defense has had a letdown in the fourth quarter.

Pitt has given up 76 points in three games and 41 of them have been scored in fourth quarters. That number could be worse. A Buffalo receiver dropped a fourth-quarter pass which would have been a touchdown, and the Bulls turned the ball over on downs deep in Pitt territory instead of trying for a field goal in the last quarter.

Todd Graham said Saturday's game was especially frustrating because the Panthers defense played so well for the first three quarters before reverting to some bad habits in the fourth.

"They were moving the ball, throwing it all over us and really just hitting the quick seams and quick releases," Graham said.

"They have some good receivers that did a good job of boxing us out and catching the football. I think the main thing is, we just got soft and real complacent, which has been exactly how we've played the first three games.

"So obviously, we're not doing a very good job of coaching them to get them ready for these games. We've got to finish these games because that's a heartbreaker for our kids."

Graham was visibly frustrated with two linebackers, Greg Williams and Todd Thomas, as both botched coverages that led to touchdowns for Iowa.

Both players have athleticism and Graham likes their speed but he said last week that all of the linebackers have had some difficulty mastering the coverages that the Panthers use.

He talked last week about simplifying coverages to eliminate breakdowns, but there were plays when receivers were running free through the defense and Pitt players looked confused.

An example of Pitt's defensive confusion came early in the game.

Iowa had a third-and-goal from the 4 and receiver Martin McNutt lined up on the outside and ran a slant pattern to the back of the end zone. Pitt cornerback K'Waun Williams looked like he was handing McNutt off to linebacker Juan Price, but Price didn't react in time and McNutt ran free to the back of the end zone.

The pass was too long and Iowa settled for a field goal.

Those kinds of episodes seemed to happen far too often down the stretch and it was one reason Vandenberg picked apart the Panthers defense.

"I thought we were playing extremely well in the passing game and then all of the sudden we were backing up, loosening up," Graham said, "We're not executing the coverage. We're letting guys run down the seam with no one on them.

"We're making critical errors. It was just kind of reverting back to a lot of critical errors."

Alecxih said that while the Panthers need to execute better, the big problem as he sees it is that the defense is lacking leadership.

That's something he wants to correct.

"It is nothing they did it all, it was something we did," Alecxih said. "And it is on the seniors -- that is, on me. It is something I have to go into the locker room and talk about it so that is nothing [that] they did at all. We just didn't play as smart as we did all week and it came back an bit us.

"[The team leaders], we have to step up. This is our team and we're up, what was it, 24-3 at the end of the third and lose?

"That is a joke, that is not going to happen again, I will tell you that."


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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