Pitt defense makes U-turn

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The quarterback ran for 55 yards on Cincinnati's first play yesterday. The next thing you knew, Pitt was trailing, 7-0. What a long, lonely walk it was for the Pitt defensive players -- who were gouged for 48 points by Navy, 44 by Virginia and 34 by Connecticut in the previous three games -- from the end zone to the sideline. Maybe they weren't thinking, "Here we go. It's happening to us again. We must really stink." But just about everyone else at Heinz Field was.

That's what made what took place the rest of this gorgeous autumn afternoon so fascinating to watch. This was one of those you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it games. The Pitt defense -- battered and beaten beyond recognition, not just by its opponents but by its many critics who were calling for everyone's head from defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads to coach Dave Wannstedt -- didn't just regroup, it rose up and willed the Panthers, 91/2-point underdogs, to an unlikely, 24-17 win that ended a four-game losing streak that appeared to have no end in sight.

"This shows we're not dead. Pitt's still here. Pitt is still here," young defensive tackle Tommie Duhart gushed afterward.

It showed the Pitt defensive players have a little heart, anyway.

"I thought the entire defense played phenomenal," Pitt quarterback Pat Bostick said, a pretty fair representation.

The defense's turnaround started on Cincinnati's second possession, right after Bostick ran one of the worst quarterback sneaks in college football history, actually losing a few inches on fourth-and-1 inch at the Pitt 28. A play later, Cincinnati had a first down at the Pitt 14 but had to settle for a field goal and a 10-0 lead.

Impressive, absolutely.

But even then, it was almost impossible to imagine that Pitt would hold Cincinnati -- a team that came in 6-1, ranked No. 23 in the polls and averaging 40.6 points and 447.4 yards per game -- to just one touchdown the rest of the way and pitch a second-half shutout. Yes, some luck was involved. Who knows what would have happened if Cincinnati's Jake Rogers hadn't missed a gimme 26-yard field goal at the end of the first half, a kick that would have sent his team into the locker room with a 20-10 lead? But luck had nothing to do with that marvelous second half when Cincinnati managed but 102 yards. Its final six possessions went this way: punt, punt, punt, lost fumble, lost fumble, interception.

"They all made plays," Wannstedt said of his defensive players. "They were very determined to do whatever they had to do to win this game."

Give Rhoads credit for keeping his guys together. We are quick to barbecue him when things go bad. It's only right to applaud him after a performance like this.

But Rhoads would be the first to tell you the players deserve the credit. Freshman defensive end Greg Romeus, who ran down quarterback Ben Mauk from behind and kept him from scrambling for a third-quarter first down. Nose tackle Rashaad Duncan and then the sophomore Duhart making stops for 3-yard losses on consecutive plays during Cincinnati's next possession. Duhart chasing wide receiver Dominick Goodman all the way to the sideline to force a fumble. Linebacker Shane Murray forcing a fumble on Cincinnati's next possession. Cornerback Aaron Berry intercepting Mauk's final pass to seal the win. Linebacker Scott McKillop, who was credited with an astounding 16 tackles.

"Really, it was hard work and hustle," Duhart said. "Playing hard every play paid off today."

What things of beauty those turnovers were to Wannstedt and Rhoads. The Pitt defense didn't force even one during the losing streak.

"Once we got that first one and then the second one came, it was like, 'Yeah! It's finally paying off for us,' " safety Eric Thatcher said. "All week in practice we worked on stripping the ball ...

"It was the game plan we had and the hard work we put in. It was the focus we had when we woke up this morning. You could see it in everybody's eyes that we were ready to play. We had great focus."

The result produced a couple of long overdue firsts for Wannstedt, deep into his third season: His first win against a ranked opponent and his first come-from-behind win in the second half. Pitt had been 0-12 under him when it trailed at halftime.

Wannstedt rightfully praised Bostick -- a freshman making his third start -- for a steady day, his offensive linemen for having a terrific afternoon and backs LeSean McCoy (137 yards on 25 carries) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (100 on 13) for running so hard. But there was no mistaking what unit won this game.

"I told you all week that our defense wasn't as bad as we played against Navy," Wannstedt said.

Say this for the coach:

For one game, anyway, his assessment was right on.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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