Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has heard people say his defense played well enough for the team to win the Rutgers and Utah games, but he disagrees because the Panthers are on a two-game losing streak.
Patterson said the Panthers might have won with more plays from the defense, and that has been his focus this week as the team prepares to play Connecticut Wednesday at Heinz Field.
"The things we are trying to eliminate are the big plays, or what I would call the cheap yardage we have given up," Patterson said. "It is really a matter of us not executing what it is we do and maybe not so much great execution on the part of the offense.
"What I tell our guys, you can go all the way back to the Iowa game, we've just played good but we haven't played great yet because there isn't an opponent we have played yet that we couldn't have held to 15 points or less -- not one -- so that is what we are striving for."
Patterson said he wants to "shoot for perfection and shut people out." That will come down to paying attention to details and maintaining a focus throughout the entire game.
He cited examples of what he was talking about from each of the past three losses (Notre Dame, Rutgers, Utah), instances when the defense lost focus for one or two plays, and it cost them.
Against Notre Dame, the Panthers held a 12-7 lead going into the fourth quarter but allowed the Irish to drive 85 yards on 11 plays to score the winning touchdown as Pitt lost, 15-12.
In the Rutgers game, the Scarlet Knights offense did little for most of the contest. But late in the third quarter, backed up on a third-and-0, they caught the Panthers in a blitz and scored on a 60-yard screen pass to take a commanding 17-point lead.
And Utah scored its only offensive touchdown on a play that should have resulted in a sack or a throwaway. Utes quarterback Jon Hays threw a ball just as he was hit by Pitt defensive end Brandon Lindsey. It was tipped by linebacker Max Gruder into the arms of Utah's Luke Matthews, who ran to the end zone.
Those are caused by what Patterson called breakdowns in focus.
"It is a mental focus, we have to be able to sustain that," Patterson said. "I think when you play on a team with a fast-paced offense, you have to get focused quicker and be prepared to play quicker. We're just striving on things that we aren't executing well.
"It is just confidence in what we are doing. If you take [away] two long runs against Utah and the screen against Rutgers, now we've played as close to the two best games defensively as we've played all year. But what we've focused on this week, let's stop talking about that one play or that one drive."
The Panthers defense held Utah to only 251 yards and Rutgers to 271 but needs to force more turnovers, Patterson said.
"It is the weirdest thing I have ever seen," Patterson said. "We don't give them time to throw the ball with our pressure, so the ball is coming out quick, and, when they go quick-game, it is hard to force interceptions. But we have had the ball out on some fumbles but we're not expecting the ball to come out and we haven't gotten them and, again, that is focus. We are trying to get our guys to understand.
"We have to attack the ball. You force 17 tackles for loss and seven quarterback sacks like we did against Utah, so we're on the right track, I just believe at some point the turnovers are going to come our way."
Patterson does not want to hear the excuse that the defense has given up points in recent weeks because of poor field position. He said the defense's job is to stop the opponent from scoring regardless of where the drive begins.
"We have to take the field if the ball is on the 10 or at midfield," Patterson said. "Like against Rutgers, they started on the [Pitt 14] on a drive which means they have an opportunity to at least kick the field, but our mindset has to be, 'Let's go stop them on three plays and then block the field goal.' "
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720.