No. 15 Pitt used off week to work on improving defense

Updated: October 7, 2003, 4:26 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Pitt's Walt Harris has coached offense for most of his career. So, naturally, he spent the No. 15 Panthers' bye week tinkering with the defense.

It's easy to see why, too -- Pittsburgh has allowed 1,095 yards and 61 points in its last two games, losing to Toledo 35-31 and beating Texas A&M 37-26. That's the trend Harris knows can't continue if the Panthers (3-1) plan to stay in the Top 25, even if their next opponent is offensively deficient Notre Dame (1-3).

With most of the coaches out recruiting last week, Harris and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads tried to figure out ways to improve a defense that ranks only 99th among the 117 Division I-A teams in pass defense.

"We talked about deployment more than anything else," Harris said. "I coached defense in college for 10 years so, hopefully, I was a positive contributor to what we are doing. This is the same defense that played extremely well around here (last season) and we haven't graduated that many guys."

One change: Sophomore Josh Lay will give way at right cornerback to William "Tutu" Ferguson, a senior who has spent most of his Pitt career as a kick returner and backup defensive back. Ferguson has made eight career starts.

"I think Tutu could practice all days -- he loves the game and that carries over in the way he plays," Harris said. "It doesn't mean Josh won't play, it just means we're starting Tutu and we're hoping he performs at the level we want him to."

Harris also wants to see the Panthers get back to being the aggressive, attacking defense they were last season, when they never allowed more than 28 points and held eight opponents to fewer than 20 points.

This season, Pitt has allowed 82 points in its last three games, including a 42-21 victory over Ball State.

"We just have to practice better and that's what I've been trying to preach to our whole football team -- you play like you practice," Harris said. "And I think for our defense, that's a downside of being a well-respected, nationally ranked defense. You think, `Well, coach Harris is talking to the offense, because they weren't as good as the defense last year.'

"Well, guess what? It creeps up on you because you weren't paying attention to the dotting the I's and crossing the T's and all of a sudden you're not playing as well as we should be playing and can play and will play. It's fortunate we're 3-1."

One problem is that defensive end Claude Harriott hasn't been as disruptive as he was last season, when he had 9{ sacks, 50 unassisted tackles and 21 tackles for 106 yards in losses. Currently, he has one sack, 11 unassisted tackles and five tackles for 10 yards in losses in four games.

Harriott missed about half of the Texas A&M game with an ankle injury, but is expected to play Saturday against Notre Dame, which has lost to Pitt only once since 1988.

"We think everything that has happened to our defense is fixable, we're just in the process of trying to get that done and I think we're making some progress," Harris said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index