Pitt vs. Virginia: On Homecoming Weekend, the Panthers Get Their House in Order

Matt Popchock@@mpopchockContributor IISeptember 30, 2013

Sep 28, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) sacks Virginia Cavaliers quarterback David Watford (5) during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers and Cavaliers combined for 387 yards of offense Saturday at Heinz Field.

Just don't ask me when.

Few may want to remember the grisly scene from this Homecoming Weekend, which, by the time it unfolded, left Pitt (2-1, 3-1) with a 14-3 win over new ACC Coastal Division rival Virginia (0-1, 2-2) that was every bit as arduous for all witnesses as the score indicates.

UVa offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild won't. Immediately after the game he became the target of a new, belligerent Twitter account demanding his dismissal.

(If you're like me, and you're constantly lagging behind the times, don't worry. They have a Facebook page, too.)

Pitt senior quarterback Tom Savage won't. Before exiting with concussion-like symptoms from a callously unpunished head shot by Daquan Romero, he was picked off twice and sacked seven times, finishing just 13-of-31.

But defensive coordinator Matt House will.

In just his first full year on this job since his promotion from secondary coach, House has had to bear the brunt of criticism for the inconsistent play of a defense thought to be the team's only certainty entering this season.

True to his own kindred spirit, he shrugged it off all week, coming off their worst performance of the season, and his players rewarded the faith of a mentor who never lost it.

Offensively, Pitt, in the grand scheme, is still ahead of its projected curve. Defensively, however, it needed to prove it could succeed without Savage and his mates putting up video game numbers.

Pitt enters an off week with its first three-game winning streak since 2010 because that defense, built by House, picked up the offense in the routine-looking manner we originally imagined.

"You've got to just keep going. We get better each week, and more comfortable with the people we're playing with," said senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who, along with counterpart Brent Urban, were in their own little stratosphere Saturday. "I try to have fun. Each week, I fly around, trying to make plays. They gave me a lot of single blocks, so I just tried to take advantage of it."

Perhaps nobody besides Donald had more fun than House, who saw his plan come together. It wasn't just the chin-up attitude of the team in practice. It wasn't just greater attention to detail. It wasn't just fundamentals.

"It's everything," Donald said. "You've got to be able to communicate well. That's part of being a great defense, and we need to continue building off that."

The only thing little about the 6'7" Urban was the room he left the Panthers to maneuver. The universally acknowledged leader of Virginia's top-10 pass defense recorded a partial sack and four tackles for loss, along with one breakup and quarterback hurry apiece.

But Pitt's front seven, who seldom appeared not on the same page, made sure the Cavaliers didn't get much further.

Donald forced one of their five fumbles, sacked sophomore David Watford twice and also hurried him twice. The Panthers, who only managed eight net rushing yards, cut their losses by limiting UVa to 65.

Meanwhile, Ty Ezell broke up two attempts by Watford, who, thanks to an ugly amalgam of good execution by the Panthers and bad execution by his receivers, was held to 123 yards on 15-of-37 passing.

Also, in keeping with the narrative that this team has gotten better as it has gotten younger, redshirt freshmen Trenton Coles and Bam Bradley recovered fumbles that led to both Panther scores, and, in his first career start, fellow newcomer Matt Galambos, in lieu of injured middle linebacker Shane Gordon, helped Pitt contain the versatile Watford.

"We came out with a different mentality this week. We tried to be more of a unit," Galambos said. "It was huge, over and over, making stops, and being able to punch back and forth.

"Whatever way you win, you're still going to be happy. But I think there is a better mood [in the locker room]. I think we were more focused, and just locked down our keys."

What loomed even larger than the 15 stops Pitt made on 18 third downs were the three it made on four fourth downs. Under those circumstances, weak side linebacker Todd Thomas continues to stand up and distance himself from a different kind of House...the doghouse.

UVa faced a two-touchdown deficit and a 4th-and-2 situation at the Pitt 27 in the second quarter when Thomas beautifully sniffed out an end-around by tailback Kevin Parks and nailed him for no gain.

Following the ensuing three-and-out by the Panthers' offense, Virginia stared at another fourth down, this time with four yards to go at the Pitt 28. Safety Ray Vinopal—who, like House, became an easy target after the Duke debacle—defended a pass intended for Jake McGee to halt that drive.

In a different time, the Panthers might have manufactured a way to waste this great group effort. With less than four minutes left in regulation, there was still a chance they might.

On 4th and 6 Watford, deep in Pitt territory, kept the game interesting by hitting Dominique Terrell for 11 yards along the Virginia sideline. When strong side linebacker Anthony Gonzalez manhandled McGee on 3rd and 2 at the three-yard line for his game-high 10th tackle, Watford's 4th-and-2 target of the latter fell incomplete thanks to more good, clean man coverage by Vinopal.

"I love how the script was flipped," head coach Paul Chryst said. "Momentum is a real part of football. I think, defensively, we had it, and we were able to keep it. It wasn't like there was God-awful play last week. But when you make big plays—or don't—you see the difference."

The script was certainly not of "Breaking Bad" finale quality. Still, in this tale of redemption, the Panthers broke bad habits and gave fans hope that their young coordinator, not far removed from his roots in the NFL, is growing in unison with his young squad.

After the first quarter, some of the most thunderous applause from the crowd of 48,425 was heard when public address announcer Joe DeStio reported the Pirates were leading the Reds.

Apropos of that was a baseball adage in action on the gridiron:

It's not "how." It's "how many."

As in, how many more times can this defense protect its House?

(All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.)