Duke, Pitt look for better defensive showings this time around

One safety grew up a Michigan fan but ended up at Ohio State, the other safety was raised in Ohio but ended up at Michigan. Naturally, Jeremy Cash and Ray Vinopal now lead the defenses of No. 24 Duke and Pitt, respectively.

Each unit will try to make a statement Saturday in the Steel City. After all, they are just less than 14 months removed from a performance that each has been trying to forget.

"It's hard to swallow exactly what happened," Cash said of watching last year's game against the Panthers.

"There were just a lot of guys not doing what they were supposed to do," Vinopal said, able to laugh a year later with the win in his back pocket.

Pitt won that contest last September, 58-55, a score that would have made each school's basketball program proud. From there, the Panthers went six straight games without surrendering more than 24 points. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, ran the rest of the regular-season table, winning eight straight before falling in the ACC title game.

Much has changed in the last year, both teams insist. Pitt was in just its third game under defensive coordinator Matt House, whose unit ranked 14th nationally in scoring average (18.6) before this past Saturday's 56-28 loss to Georgia Tech. Duke was just four games removed from a 2012 campaign that saw it finish last in the ACC in scoring defense. The Blue Devils improved steadily throughout last season's run, and this year find themselves second in the league and fifth nationally in scoring defense (15.1 ppg) behind fifth-year coordinator Jim Knowles.

"We've had a lot of young people in the secondary, still are fairly young, but we've just really had to try to grow up our defense, and I think the thing we've done best is become systematic, because you see so many different things," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "You see, Pitt themselves, they line up in two tight ends, and two backs, a 270-pound fullback in the game, they can get into three- and four- wide receivers. And we see just about everything you can imagine in college football, and so Jim Knowles and the defensive staff have done a much better job I think over a period of these years, putting us in a systematic approach, where our guys understand what we're trying to do.

This year's unit has taken on the identity of Cash, a redshirt junior from Miami who for whatever reason grew up rooting for the U of M not in his backyard. He instead fell in love with coach Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes, enrolling four months before the coach's resignation. He played as a freshman but sought a new landing spot upon the arrival of Urban Meyer, who had not offered the in-state product when he was coaching Florida. Tressel spoke highly of Cutcliffe, who had yet to take Duke to a bowl game at that point. Cash's faith has been rewarded, though, with the 6-1 Blue Devils postseason-bound for the third straight year and looking for more this time around.

Cash is fifth in the ACC in tackles per game (nine) and tops in forced fumbles, with three. His five stops behind the line of scrimmage are tied for the team lead. He was named one of 15 semifinalists Monday for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back. He turned things up another level, he said, upon seeing linebacker and fellow defensive captain Kelby Brown go down in camp with an ACL tear.

"We had a lot of our senior leaders graduate," Cash said, "therefore I felt that I needed to step up in the back end because we did have a lot of youth and inexperience."

His path parallels that of the guy looking to send 4-4 Pitt bowling again despite dropping four of its last five games. Vinopal, a redshirt senior with 38 stops and two picks to his name, anchors a very young and thin secondary under first-year position coach Troy Douglas.

The Youngstown, Ohio native, initially went to Michigan, earning a starting role during Rich Rodriguez's final year as coach. A coaching change there prompted Vinopal to seek a new locale, and though neighboring Pitt offered an uneasy new start -- coach Todd Graham departed after his only season, when Vinopal sat out -- the Paul Chryst regime has offered stability these past three years for a safety who had been heavily involved with Chryst's old Wisconsin team back in the recruiting process.

"It's definitely an unconventional path, and I'm just blessed and fortunate to have gotten pretty much the luck of the draw," Vinopla said. "Sometimes times were a little tough and it didn't seem like I was heading in the direction where I had envisioned or where my goals had been set to go, but luckily I kept working and grinding away and ended up in a good situation."