Rutgers defense 'unique challenge'

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Much has been made this college football season about the proliferation of high-paced offenses and, especially in some conferences, a seeming disregard for defense.

Pitt likely is wondering what everyone is talking about.

For the third game in a row, the Panthers (4-6, 1-4 Big East) will face a defense ranked in the top 15 in Division I-A when Rutgers (9-1, 5-0) comes to Heinz Field Saturday.

After losing one-score games to No. 1 Notre Dame (ranked No. 6 in total defense) and Connecticut (No. 9 in total defense), the Scarlet Knights come in ranked 14th, allowing just 312.6 yards per game.

"They're good, and their numbers back it up," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said of the Rutgers defense.

"When you're 9-1, you've done a lot, and its not by accident. They've got good players, and I think they're well-coached. Our guys know that, they've seen the film."

While they had an extra off week to watch film, most Pitt players only need to look back to last year for a reminder of how good the Scarlet Knights defense is.

Rutgers picked off four passes and held the Panthers to 271 total yards in a 34-10 victory in Piscataway, N.J. This year, the Scarlet Knights rank 12th in Division I-A with a plus-11 turnover margin.

"Defensively, they're taking the ball away; offensively they're protecting it," Chryst said. "I think they play off each other and well as a team. They've got and should have a lot of confidence in their defense, so they're not going to try to be reckless."

Part of the Scarlet Knights' defensive identity is mixing up blitz packages to force pressure and relying on cornerbacks to shut down opposing receivers. Rutgers leads the Big East in passing efficiency defense, but is last in sacks per game.

"Absolutely, they'll pressure. I don't think it's an all-or-nothing deal for them," Chryst said. "I think they can be aggressive and be effective without pressuring. Some teams, that becomes their identity and who they are. I think they mix it up well.

Last year, quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for 127 yards against the Scarlet Knights. Wide receiver Devin Street said he expects to be matched against cornerback Logan Ryan in coverage, the same as last season.

In that game, Ryan held Street to 26 yards on three catches.

"I feel like they will bring pressure and allow their corners to cover, rely on their pressure to get there quickly," Street said. "At the same time, their corners are pretty good."

The past two games against elite defenses have been a mixed bag for the Panthers. Against the Irish, they jumped to a 20-6 lead after three quarters but couldn't garner any offensive momentum in the fourth or any of three overtimes. Two weeks ago, against Connecticut, Pitt's offense stalled for zero first-half points, before a 17-point comeback in the second half came up short.

Like most aspects of the team, a more consistent performance will be necessary for a win Saturday.

"Right now, we're just focused on Rutgers, which is a very unique challenge, their defense," center Ryan Turnley said. "I think that to look past the first play on Saturday against Rutgers would be a huge mistake because they're going to present us with a very unique challenge."

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Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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