Panthers defense helping fuel 2-0 start

James Conner
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) score his second touchdown of the first quarter in an NCAA college football game against Delaware on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Turns out there’s life after Aaron Donald for the Pittsburgh Panthers, after all.
While the all-everything defensive lineman is now making a splash with the St. Louis Rams, the youngsters he left behind are learning on the job.
Pitt (2-0) enters Saturday’s game at Florida International (1-1) second in the country in interceptions (five), fourth in fewest passing yards allowed (82.5 per game), fourth in total defense (170 yards per game), 11th in points allowed (10 per game) and 22nd in rushing defense (87.5 yards per game).
And while Delaware and Boston College aren’t offensive powerhouses like Oregon or Baylor, the Panthers know they had to start somewhere. The early returns are promising.
“There was a stretch . the first game, we pitched a shutout,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “And in the second game, there was a good long stretch where nothing much was happening for them. And what I really like about the group is when there is something that happens, they talk about it, regroup and play.”
The Panthers have one of the youngest defenses in the country, with 15 freshmen or sophomores on the first or second string. The kids rely heavily on fifth-year seniors Anthony Gonzalez, the strong-side linebacker, free safety Ray Vinopal and end David Durham to take charge both on and off the field.
“I think this is our second year in this scheme, so we’re more confident with some of the things that he did last year,” Durham said. “We’re running the same stuff, but we had a whole spring and whole camp, and just as a team we’re more confident and playing together.”
Senior wide receiver Manasseh Garner isn’t complaining.
“We’ve forced some turnovers and they’ve given us some short fields,” Garner said. “So, we appreciate the work that they’ve done. I’m just glad we’ve been able to make those pay off with touchdowns.”
The offense is doing its part, chewing up yards and time behind running back James Conner. Given plenty of time to rest between series, the Panthers have attacked the field. It’s heady territory for a unit in search of an identity after Donald’s departure.
However, thanks to players like Durham and junior tackle Darryl Render, Pitt’s defensive line has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises.
“Sure, we lost some big-play guys, obviously, like A.D.,” Durham said. “Those are some big-play guys. Not that we don’t have some this year, but I think we’re more cohesive, just because we trust each other more and are more comfortable with the scheme.”
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Durham had four tackles in each game with a sack in the opener, the first in his collegiate career. Durham didn’t do a sack dance of any kind, but he pretended to brush dust off each shoulder. Unfortunately for Durham, he did it in front of an over-officious referee and was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting.
“Yeah, you won’t be seeing that again,” Durham said. “(And) I’m taking a different approach. It’s all business for me, and I want to stay focused. ”
He said the Panthers won’t be getting ahead of themselves even with their solid start.
“We won two games, but there’s a lot left to play,” Durham said. “We feel good about it, gained confidence from it and have had fun with it, but we need to understand that . we can beat anybody. But, at the same time, we can get beat by anybody.”

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