Panthers look for answers on pass defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
The biggest stunner in a season full of Big East surprises came at Heinz Field last weekend, when Rutgers beat Pittsburgh 54-34. Mike Teel threw six touchdown passes, doubling his season total, while the Scarlet Knights more than quadrupled their scoring average against major college competition.

What in the heck happened to Pitt's pass defense? Safety Eric Thatcher tried to figure that out in the film room on Monday.

"We got kind of lackadaisical at the reception point, and they went up and attacked the ball," Thatcher said. "On some of the routes, we didn't get our hands on receivers to slow them down. Teel had a ton of time to sit back there and decide who he wanted to throw to, and the secondary, we gave him a ton of options to pick from."

Teel had touchdown throws of 79, 60 and 36 yards among his 361 passing yards. Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said he expected Rutgers to come in and try to run the ball, and that many of their big plays came off play-action in max protection schemes.

"Every time we've played these guys they've run the football, played defense and played special teams," Wannstedt said. "That's how they beat Connecticut the week before. So we went in thinking that on first-and-10, we needed to stop the run and we got hit by a big pass."

Before Saturday, the Panthers had been allowing just 156 yards passing per game and had given up six passing touchdowns in their first six games. They held South Florida's spread attack to 129 passing yards in a 26-21 win. A lot of their success came from getting a heavy pass rush on quarterbacks, something Rutgers neutralized by keeping extra blockers in.

The Scarlet Knights may have exposed some weaknesses in the Pitt secondary, and Wannstedt has hinted at possible changes in that group. Backup cornerback Ricky Gary saw increased time on Saturday, and backups Elijah Field and Antwuan Reed could move into bigger roles this week.

"I kind of take ownership of what happened because I'm the senior in the secondary," Thatcher said. "I've been around and I know the things we need to do. On Saturday, we just did none of those things."

The Panthers (5-2) need to find answers before they go to South Bend this weekend, because there's little doubt what Notre Dame will try to do. Led by quarterback Jimmy Clausen, the Irish are throwing for 262.5 yards per game, 20th best in the FBS.

"Notre Dame may throw it 60 times this week," Wannstedt said.

Although it's not a conference game this week, Pitt is eager to stem the negative momentum and avoid a repeat of 2006. That year, the Panthers started out 6-1, only to lose their final five games and miss the postseason. The tailspin began with a double-digit loss at home to Rutgers.

"That's definitely been brought up," offensive lineman C.J. Davis said of the similarities. "We're trying to make sure history doesn't repeat itself. If I had to make a guess, I really can't see us doing that again.

"We're trying to look at it as now we're back to ground zero. This is a good week for us to roll up our sleeves and go to work, because we definitely need a win."

They will likely have to do it with a new quarterback and a revamped offensive line because of injuries to Bill Stull and center Robb Houser. The players say it's easy to get motivated going to South Bend, where Pitt won in 2004. But most importantly, the pass defense needs to prevent any unwanted surprises.

"We know that we'll have a ton of people watching," Thatcher said. "We want to show people that last week was just a mix-up and that we can cover in that secondary."