Pitt's defensive scheme against Old Dominion kept top linebacker on sideline

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As Pitt struggled to contain the Old Dominion spread offense Saturday night at Heinz Field, one player’s absence from the defensive rotation was noticeable.

Linebacker Todd Thomas played mostly only on special teams and finished with no tackles for the first time this season.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst said Thomas’ absence was no reflection on the player, but rather a byproduct of the defensive scheme the Panthers used against the Monarchs in the 35-24 victory.

Rather than play with a traditional alignment, Pitt used mostly nickel and dime packages, which meant as many as six defensive backs on the field.

As a result, cornerbacks Titus Howard and Trenton Coles got more playing time, while Thomas stayed on the sideline.

“It wasn’t like Todd doesn’t have the speed or wasn’t ready if something were to happen,” Chryst said.

“We just thought we were better off with some more [defensive backs] in there. If something would have happened, then we could have leaned on the linebacker corps a little more.”

Thomas ruffled some feathers with the coaching staff when he quit the team early in training camp, but Chryst said he has been great to work with since his return. While he saw limited action in the opener against Florida State, he had been a strong point of the defense since the second game against New Mexico.

He had perhaps his best game this season Oct. 12 at Virginia Tech, racking up a team-high 12 tackles, including five solo stops.

“I’m happy with the way Todd’s progressed and I thought we had the right plan for what we we’re doing,” Chryst said. “I think it’s our job to make sure we’re putting players in positions for them to be successful.”

Conner could have played

Chryst said freshman running back James Conner could have played against Old Dominion had the Panthers needed him, but junior Isaac Bennett was playing so well that the coaches decided to let Conner rest his injured shoulder.

“We just wanted to see how it played out,” Chryst said. “James was dressed and ready to go if we needed him, but I thought Isaac was running pretty hard.”

Conner re-injured his left shoulder early in the 19-9 loss at Virginia Tech the week before. He had previously hurt it in training camp.

Conner likely will return Saturday when Pitt visits Navy.

Chryst eager to visit Navy

Chryst said he was looking forward to facing a service academy for the first time in his career.

His brother, Rick, used to work in Navy’s sports information office, so Chryst has an idea of what the atmosphere will be like at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but has not experienced it himself.

“The value and pageantry of the academies is unbelievable,” Chryst said.

“I think you appreciate all that and yet you have to make sure you understand you’re playing a game this week. It doesn’t equate to how much you appreciate all they do and what those places are.”

Another TV game at night

The ACC announced Monday that Pitt’s Nov. 2 game at Georgia Tech will kick off at 7 p.m. and be broadcast nationally on ESPNU.

It will mark the third night kickoff this season after prime-time games against Florida State and Old Dominion.

It also will be Pitt’s fourth nationally televised game this season.

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

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