Kenny Pickett threw a seven-yard pass to wide receiver Maurice Ffrench on a tunnel screen on Pitt’s opening drive, and it was the first of many passes for a career-day for the junior quarterback
Pickett went 26-for-37 and totaled 321 yards — both career highs— and a touchdown. It felt like all Ohio could do was watch as Pickett threw one completion after the next in the Bobcats’ 20-10 loss Saturday at Heinz Field.
Pickett’s dissection of Ohio’s pass defense was methodical — dumps in the flats and sharp throws into the middle of the field in between the linebackers and secondary. Sans a 74-yard touchdown from the Pickett-Ffrench connection, the Bobcats kept everything in front of them. But 321 yards in the air and 481 total yards allowed says a lot about the state of the Ohio's defense.
Redshirt senior Javon Hagan mentioned how a year ago against Virginia – another ACC program – the defense allowed 379 passing yards, but it allowed 45 points. Against Pitt, the Bobcats allowed just 20 points.
“Our play compared to last year, I’ve already seen a big difference,” he said. “Against Pitt, we gave up a lot of yards, but not a lot of points.”
The defense had its miscues aside from the pass defense. Jared Dorsa dropped an interception when Pitt was in the red zone. The defensive line couldn’t generate a consistent pass rush to pressure Pickett. Despite the eight quarterback hurries and one sack from linebacker Eric Popp, there wasn't much to be seen from the front seven.
“We didn’t get much pressure on them, and that’s huge,” coach Frank Solich said. “We think we have pretty good players in pass rush ability, but it didn’t show.”
After two games, there's still some positives to take away from the defense. A year ago, Ohio allowed 77 points in its first two games. This season it’s allowed 41 points against arguably better competition. Ohio’s ability to hold Pitt to just three points in the second half can offer a deep breath of optimism for a defense that has allowed 612 passing yards over the last two weeks.
To the Bobcats’ disadvantage, they lost the field position battle a few times. Pitt started three of its 13 drives ahead of its own 40 and one drive in Ohio territory. Those three drives resulted in one touchdown and it took the Panthers eight plays for Vincent Davis to score Pitt’s last touchdown of the day.
“We go by the motto of ‘field position plus momentum equals points,’” Hagan said.
Ohio’s defense gave the offense ample opportunities to keep that momentum in its favor. The offensive line allowed six sacks, wide receivers dropped passes – Jerome Buckner dropped a pass in the end zone in the second quarter – and the Bobcats’ running back trio was limited to just 78 yards.
It's only Week 2, though, and the defense will continue to grow. It travels to Marshall next week, a team that has averaged 396 total yards per game. It then has Louisiana-Lafayette at home, who had 430 yards in its Week 1 game.
Regardless, the defense for the next two weeks will continue to be tested, but it’s hopeful and excited about the opportunity to improve.
“I’m very enthusiastic about our defense going forward,” Hagan said. “We just have to get ready for Marshall next week, who’s another good program.”
Ohio has plenty of time to get the pass defense right. It’s hardly made a dent into its season, but it can’t continue to allow quarterbacks to have record days similar to Pickett's performance on Saturday.