Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
One of the biggest reasons for Pitt's recent surge has been its improved pass defense. This week's game against Notre Dame will show just how much better the Panthers have gotten at protecting their air space.
"This will be a major test," Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "If there's a better throwing team in the country, I don't know who it is."
A few weeks ago, a visit from Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd might have spelled disaster for Bennett's defense. Buffalo shredded the Panthers for 433 passing yards and four touchdowns, and NC State dealt Pitt its only loss thanks to 322 yards in the air and Russell Wilson's four passing touchdowns.
Opponents were finding lots of success throwing underneath Pitt's coverage and breaking tackles for big gains. Starting safety Andrew Taglianetti suffered a season-ending knee injury against Buffalo. Linebacker Adam Gunn missed a few games with an ankle injury, forcing true freshman Dan Mason to man the middle. Coaches think Mason will be a great player, but it's hard for such an inexperienced player to hold down perhaps the most important position in Pitt's defensive scheme.
"Early in the year, we found out what we were capable of doing," Bennett said. "When your players start to understand their weaknesses and what to do to protect those weaknesses, then you've got a chance to get things going."
The return of a healthy Gunn, a sixth-year senior whom Bennett describes as "a coach on the field," helped settle things. Pitt replaced Taglianetti with redshirt freshman Jarred Holley, who switched over from cornerback to safety for the second half of the Louisville game.
"He's come on and really done a nice job for us," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He's got a long way to go, but he's an athlete who can make plays, and that's what you're looking for back there."
The last piece of the puzzle was figuring out what to do with Elijah Fields. The safety is one of the most gifted athletes on the roster but has had an up-and-down career filled with trips in and out of Wannstedt's doghouse. Bennett decided to bring Fields down to the linebacker spot in nickel packages. That's significant because Pitt had rarely played nickel in the past, preferring mostly to stay in a 4-3 base that has been a Wannstedt staple forever.
"I think we got our best players on the field," Bennett said. "Elijah sort of had a feel for it, and we built a package around it that's been good for us."
The results confirm that. In the past five games, opponents have averaged just 176 passing yards. Pitt held South Florida's B.J. Daniels to 54 yards passing and limited Syracuse to 141 passing yards while grabbing five interceptions in those two blowout wins.
Of course, it's one thing to do that against a very tentative Bulls game plan and versus a depleted Syracuse team. It's quite another to stop Clausen, Tate and Floyd, who lead the nation's No. 5 passing attack.
"We realize we're going up against one of the best receiving corps in the country and one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football right now," Holley said. "It's going to be a big challenge for our defense."
But at least now Pitt seems more prepared for the task.