With the now Canes preparing for a trip to Clemson and important ACC showdown, here's one final look at the 31-3 win over Pittsburgh and a few final post-game thoughts:
> The Canes defense showed us they're much improved... Coach Randy Shannon said his defense was embarrassed when they watched film of the Ohio State game. They can be proud of the Pitt game. All week long the emphasis was placed on cleaning up missed tackles and creating turnovers. The Canes resolved those issues with gang tackling and two interceptions in the fourth quarter deep in their own territory. Pitt finished with 11 first downs and 232 yards of total offense. Those numbers are similar to every good game the defense played last season (Georgia Tech had 12 first downs, 228 yards total offense; UCF had 11 first downs, 229 yards total offense; Virginia had 10 first downs, 149 yards total offense; and USF had 11 first downs, 220 yards total offense). The difference is this Canes defense dominated up front, creating five sacks and nine tackles for loss (more than in any of those previous wins) and the turnovers (USF, GT, UCF and UVA had one or less). What I liked most were the 3-and-outs -- the Canes forced seven in all before Pittsburgh began to have a little success late in the game against some second team players.
WHAT ELSE TO LIKE FROM THE GAME
> Sean Spence proved he's moved past his sophomore slump... He didn't necessarily look bad against Ohio State (he had a career-high 11 tackles), but we almost needed to see another good game from Spence to reassure us he really is back to being the playmaker he was as a freshman. We got it Thursday. He led the team with nine tackles and produced 2.5 tackles for loss to go with 1.5 sacks. He now not only leads the team in tackles with 24 overall, but he also leads the team in tackles for loss (6.5) and pass breakups (2). So why is Spence doing a better job than a year ago when injuries and a move to the strongside seemed to slow him down? It's simple: the guys around him are doing a better job and offenses are no longer able to take him out of the game. "I give a lot of credit to my d-line," Spence said after the Pitt win. "They kept me free, kept guys off me. The secondary did a great job covering guys, making sure they threw the ball underneath and allowing me and Colin to make tackles."
> The Canes continued to show us they have a legitimate pass rush... Remember how frustrating it was last season to see quarterbacks have all day to throw the football? Not so in 2010. While Pitt's offensive line was not the greatest, the Canes rebounded from their one-sack performance against Ohio State by getting in the backfield early and often. Andrew Smith led the charge with two sacks. Don't discount Smith's value especially with Marcus Robinson (right ankle) still dinged up. Robinson traveled to Pitt, but didn't play. As Allen Bailey pointed out after the game "[Smith's] ability to play both sides really helps out. With injuries on the inside, it gives me a chance to go inside and him to play left side."
> Damien Berry's effort... Berry set a new career-high for carries with 21 for 87 yards and a touchdown. A lot of those yards were hard earned. He had to break several tackles to keep drives alive and pick up first downs on third down. He also got more involved in the passing game, catching two passes for 18 yards. Lamar Miller finished with 31 yards on eight carries and touchdown. Miller still finished nine touches shy of the 20 Shannon said he would get before the game. But 35 rushing attempts compared to 32 pass attempts was a nice sign of balance for the offense.
WHAT WAS TROUBLING
> Obviously, the interceptions by Jacory Harris... Six picks in two games isn't good no matter where you point the finger. Shannon is obviously pointing most of them toward Travis Benjamin, who isn't free from blame. Here is what troubles me -- and gives me some hope, too. Regardless of whether or not Benjamin is running the right route or not fighting enough for the football, Harris needs to know better than to throw floaters his way, especially into heavy coverage. Now, one thing I liked from Harris was how he bounced back from his rough first half. He finished 8 of 10 over the final two quarters for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Instead of allowing Harris to scan the field in the second half, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple made him roll out of the pocket more and concentrate on one or two options with safe passing plays. If that's what it is going to take for Harris to stop throwing interceptions, at least we know now there is a bit of a solution.
"Jacory is a real good quarterback and we know if that kids' heads on right we can go a long ways," left tackle Orlando Franklin said after the game. "It was definitely important for us to come out and make a statement for him. If he's on the right page, if we're on the right page with Jacory, there's no telling how far this team can go."
> The struggles Jermaine Johnson and Joel Figueroa had at right tackle... After doing a pretty good job at Ohio State, Johnson and Figueroa finally looked like this was only their third game starting at right tackle. Both were beaten for sacks and on several other plays that Pitt's athletic defensive ends made. Look, neither of these guys are going to be perfect. But in the ACC, where there always seems to be great pass rushers this is something we'll have to continue to monitor. The good news is, it looks like freshman Seantrel Henderson is making strides. He was in on key running situations and it might not be long before he's ready to push Johnson and Figueroa for some real playing time.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS/NOTES
> The special teams deserves some props for improving their tackling after giving up a few long runs at Ohio State. The Panthers only started one drive in UM territory and started five of their six drives following a kickoff inside of their own 26 yard line. Pitt, which came in having blocked 23 kicks in the last five seasons, didn't come close to blocking any Thursday night.
But there were also a few mistakes -- two illegal block penalties that negated a 65-yard punt return by Travis Benajmin and a 29-yard punt return that turned into a 44-yarder and gave Pitt possession at the UM 20 following a 15-yard personal foul penalty on Vaughn Telemaque.
> Other than Harris' "nicked" left shoulder, there didn't appear to be any serious injuries to Canes players although left guard Brandon Washington and linebacker Ramon Buchanon both spent some time on the ground before leaving and returning. Although Shannon said Harris is fine, we've heard Harris was seen with his left arm in a sling after the game.
> For Shannon's teleconference review of the game on Friday, check out our UM audio page.
> The Canes are expected to resume practice as usual on Tuesday.