Panthers come up stronger in the end

Line conditioning, depth provide edge

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Iowa's offensive line got the better of Pitt's defensive front for most of the first three quarters Saturday in the Panthers' 21-20 win against the Hawkeyes at Heinz Field.

Then a funny thing happened in the fourth quarter -- the Hawkeyes' offensive line appeared to get worn down and the Panthers' defensive line took control.


Up Next

Game: Syracuse (1-3) vs. Pitt (2-1), noon, Saturday.

Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N,Y.

TV: ESPN.


That is the opposite of what is supposed to happen when bigger, stronger players are leaning on an undersized defensive front for so long. Usually, the bigger guys wear down the smaller guys.

"This win was all [Pitt strength coach] Buddy Morris," said Pitt defensive end Tony Tucker, who assisted on a key sack late in the game and then forced the fumble that sealed the win. "I mean, he pushes us so hard, he conditioned us, he kept us working so hard in the offseason that you could tell we were in better shape, and all of it paid off.

"I mean, they have two extraordinary tackles, both of those guys are really good, but we knew if we just kept chopping at the wood, we'd eventually break through. Buddy, to me, is the best strength coach in America and today, it really showed when it counted."

"Our defense got stronger as the game went on and I think that's a credit to Buddy Morris," linebacker Scott McKillop added, "In the third and fourth quarter when it counted most, we were the best team."

If Pitt earns its first trip to a bowl game since the 2004 season, the Panthers' fourth-quarter defensive performance against Iowa should be remembered as the moment Pitt turned the corner.

The Panthers had six sacks and two quarterback hurries. Pitt took a 21-17 lead with 13:37 to play and Iowa responded with a field goal to make it 21-20 at the 10:58 mark. From that point, Pitt's defense controlled the game.

"We could feel their O-line was starting to get a little tired and we condition hard all during the offseason for moments like that," said defensive tackle Mick Williams, who sacked Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen on one of Iowa's final possessions.

"I felt like the defensive line let the team down a little bit for most of the game but in the fourth quarter, that's when we started to make plays and make a difference.

"[Defensive line coach Greg] Gattuso put it in our heads to 'be relentless, keep fighting' and [the sack] was just a matter of being relentless, not stopping and making a play. We try to give fanatical effort on every play and create havoc for the opponent."

Although the Panthers credited their conditioning program with the way they were able to dominate the fourth quarter there is another reason ... depth.

The Panthers rotated five players -- Myles Caragein, Williams, Tommie Duhart, Gus Mustakas and Rashaad Duncan -- at defensive tackle and four -- Tyler Tkach, Tucker, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard at defensive end.

Williams said the rotation, as much as anything, is a key to the unit's success.

"It is a great feeling to know, any time someone is coming off for a break, somebody who is just as good is going right back into the game and there won't be a drop-off," Williams said. "It is fun to watch those young boys come in and do their thing and go out there and have fun.

"When we start rotating like that, it is fun because you could see those boys [Iowa's offensive line] get tired and we're coming in and we can give everything we got because we know there is someone just as good waiting to come in to replace us."


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


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