Pitt defense aims for a slice of redemption

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For almost a month now, Pitt’s defense has had to practice with a pretty bad taste in its mouth.

In the final regular-season game, the Panthers gave up 476 yards — their third-highest total of the season and worst showing since September — in a 41-31 loss against Miami.

Even though defensive lineman Aaron Donald spent the past few weeks collecting awards and honors, that loss still gnaws at him. He and the rest of the defense will seek redemption Thursday when the Panthers face Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

“I felt like we got embarrassed out there,” Donald said. “We’re going to come back out against Bowling Green and we’ve got a lot to prove, a lot to show. We’re going to get out there and fly around.”

Defensive coordinator Matt House said this week he thinks the defense improved as the season went on until that final game.

After a 58-55 win Sept. 21 against Duke, Pitt allowed opponents 334.8 total yards and 20.3 points per game in the next eight contests leading up to Miami. On the season, Pitt ranked 42nd in Division I-A in total defense (374.1 yards per game) and 70th in scoring defense (27.2 points per game).

While the performance against the Hurricanes was disappointing, House said he was pleased with the players’ reaction to it, citing an increased tempo in bowl practices.

“I think part of that is we have set a bar and an expectation, and throughout the year we’ve improved, improved, improved, with that last game being an aberration,” House said. “I think it truly ticked the kids off.”

Pitt will have to contend Thursday with Bowling Green’s dual-threat quarterback Matt Johnson. Johnson passed for 3,195 yards and 23 touchdowns in the regular season, and added 268 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

In Bowling Green’s biggest game, the Mid-American Conference championship against previously undefeated Northern Illinois, Johnson had his best performance of the year. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 393 yards and five touchdowns to spark a 47-27 upset.

“Boy, you turn on the tape and some of that stuff, it’s scary because he does a good job pushing the ball down the field and he does a good job getting rid of the ball on time,” House said.

“He’s real efficient running their offense. He’s real athletic. He’s a good player.”

Each Pitt player might have his own individual motivation in the bowl game — whether it’s a senior playing his final game or a freshman looking to carve out a role for next year — but the defense as a unit is determined to prove it’s better than it showed in the final game last month at Heinz Field.

“[Energy] is always up, but everybody knows this is the last game, so we want to go out with a bang and a big win,” Donald said.

Safety Ray Vinopal also noted that the Panthers are 41⁄2-point underdogs against their MAC opponent.

“It definitely lights a fire under you a little bit,” he said. “But also you can only take it for what it’s worth. You can’t let that affect what you think or how you’re gong to approach it. You approach every week the same whether you’re playing Alabama or playing some school no one’s ever heard of.”

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

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